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Primitivism and Decadence 

Maule's Curse 
The Anatomy of Nonsense 
The Function of Criticism 


The Immobile Wind 

The Magpie's Shadow 

The Bare Hills 

The Proof 

The Journey 

Before Disaster 


The Giant Weapon 
Collected Poems 


Twelve Poets ot the Pacific 
Twelve Poets of the Pacific: Second Scries 



A Study of American Experimental Poetry 

Seven Studies in the History of American Obscurantism 



or What Are We to Think of Professor X? 


Yvor Winters 


Broadway House, 68-74 Carter Lane 

London, E.C-4 

Third edition 

COPYRIGHT, 1937, 1947, 


COPYRIGHT, 1938, 1943, 



MOST OF THE ESSAYS in this volume are reprinted from earlier 
books: From Primitivism and Decadence (Arrow Editions, 
1937) The Morality of Poetry, The Experimental School, Poetic 
Convention, Primitivism and Decadence, and The Influence of 
Meter on Poetic Convention; from Maules Curse (New Direc- 
tions, 1938) Maule's Curse, Fenimore Cooper, Herman Mel- 
ville, Edgar Allan Poe, Jones Very and R. W. Emerson, Emily 
Dickinson, and Maule's Well; from The Anatomy of Nonsense 
(New Directions, 1943) Preliminary Problems, Henry Adams, 
Wallace Stevens, T. S. Eliot, John Crowe Ransom, and Post 

Acknowledgment should be made also to the following mag- 
azines, in which some of this material appeared originally: The 
Hound and Horn, Poetry, American Literature, The American 
Review, and The Kenyon Review. 





Experimental Poetry 15 

The Morality of Poetry 17 

The Experimental Sehool in American Thought 30 

Poetic Convention 75 

Primitivism and Decadence 90 

The Influence of Meter on Poetic Convention 103 

MAULE'S CURSE: Seven Studies in the History of Ameri- 
can Obscurantism 151 
A Foreword 153 
Maule's Curse, or Hawthorne and the Problem of 

Allegory 157 
Fcnimorc Cooper, or the Ruins of Time 176 
Herman Melville, and the Problems of Moral Navi- 
gation 200 
Edgar Allan Poe: A Crisis in the History of American 

Obscurantism 234 
Jones Very and R. W. Emerson : Aspects of New Eng- 
land Mysticism 262 
Emily Dickinson and the Limits of Judgment 283 
Maule's Well, or Henry James and the Relation of 

Morals to Manners 300 

A Brief Selection of the Poems of Jones Very 344 


Preliminary Problems 361 

I Icnry Adams, or the Creation of Confusion 374 

Wallace Stevens, or the Hedonist's Progress 431 

T. S. Eliot, or the Illusion of Reaction 460 



John Crowe Ransom, or Thunder Without God 502 

Post Scripta 556 

or What Are We to Think of Professor X? 575 





THE ESSAYS NOW REPRINTED in this volume are the work of more 
than fifteen years. Although this collection, like any collection 
of essays, suffers from its miscellaneous character, there is a 
single theory of literature developed throughout and a single 
theory of the history of literature since the Renaissance. These 
theories are developed mainly with reference to American litera- 
ture. It may be of some service to the reader if I recapitulate 

There have been various ideas regarding the nature and func- 
tion of literature during the twenty-five hundred years or so that 
literature has been seriously discussed. One might think, off- 
hand, that the possibilities were limitless; but they are actually 
limited and even narrowly limited the ideas are all classifiable 
under a fairly small number of headings. I shall not attempt an 
historical survey but shall merely attempt a brief classificatory 
survey. The theories in question can all be classified, I believe, 
under three headings: the didactic, the hedonistic, and the ro- 
mantic. I am not in sympathy with any of these, but with a 
fourth, which for lack of a better term I call the moralistic. This 
concept of literature has not been adequately defined in the past 
so far as my limited knowledge extends, but I believe that it has 
been loosely implicit in the inexact theorizing which has led to 
the most durable judgments in the history of criticism. 

The didactic theory of literature is simple; it is this: that 
literature offers us useful precepts and explicit moral instruction. 
If the theory is sound, then literature is useful; but the question 
arises as to whether there may not be other fields of study, such 


as religion or ethics, which may accomplish the same end more 
efficiently. The question is usually met by the Horatian formula, 
which combines the didactic with the hedonistic, telling us that 
the function of literature is to provide instruction (or profit) in 
conjunction with pleasure, to make instruction palatable. Of this 
I shall say more later. There arises another question in connec- 
tion with the didactic theory: can one say, as someone I believe 
it was Kenneth Burke has remarked, that Hamlet was written 
to prove that procrastination is the thief of time, or to prove 
something comparably simple? Or is there more than that to 
Hamlet? And if there is more, is it worth anything? It seems 
obvious to me that there is more and that it is worth a great deal, 
that the paraphrasable content of the work is never equal to the 
work, and that our theory of literature must account not only for 
the paraphrasable content but for the work itself. The didactic 
theory of literature fails to do this. 

The hedonist sees pleasure as. the end of life, and literature 
either as a heightener of pleasure or as the purveyor of a particu- 
lar and mdre or less esoteric variety of pleasure. The term pleas- 
ure is applied indiscriminately to widely varying experiences : we 
say, for example, that we derive pleasure from a glass of good 
whisky and that we derive pleasure from reading Hamlet. The 
word is thus misleading, for it designates two experiences here 
which have little relationship to each other. There is a great 
range in the kinds of pleasure advocated in various hedonistic 
philosophies, but in general one might remark this defect which 
is common to nearly all, perhaps to all, such systems: pleasure 
is treated as an end in itself, not as a by-product of something 
else. If we recognize that certain feelings which are loosely 
classifiable as forms of pleasure result from our recognition of 
various kinds of truth and from the proper functioning of our 
natures in the process of this recognition, we then have a princi- 
ple which may enable us to distinguish these pleasures from 
pleasures less important or less desirable, such as the pleasures 
or satisfactions which we derive from the gratification of physical 
appetites or from the excitement of stimulants, and a principle 
which may even enable us to evaluate relatively to each other the 

higher pleasures themselves. But pleasure then becomes inciden- 
tal and not primary, and our system can no longer be classified as 
properly hedonistic. Furthermore, there is this distinction at least 
between hedonistic ethics and hedonistic aesthetics: hedonistic 
ethics, as in the philosophy of Epicurus, may take on a somewhat 
passive or negativistic character; that is pleasure may come to be 
more or less nearly identified simply with the avoidance of pain. 
But one cannot praise a poem or a picture merely by saying that 
it gives no pain: the experience of the poem or of the picture 
must be strongly positive. Hedonistic theories of literature tend 
in the main, and this is especially true in the past two hundred 
years, to take one of two forms. 

The first might be connected with the name of Walter Pater. 
According to this view there is a close relation between hedo- 
nistic ethics and hedonistic aesthetics. Pleasure is the aim of life. 
Pleasure consists in intensity of experience; that is in the culti- 
vation of the feelings for their own sake, as a good in themselves. 
And literature, or at any rate the arts in general, can provide a 
finer technique of such cultivation than can any other mode of 
activity. We meet here the first difficulty which I mentioned in 
connection with hedonistic doctrines; namely, that unless we 
have illicit relations with some non-hedonistic ethical theory, we 
have no way of distinguishing among the many and diverse 
excitements that are commonly described as pleasurable. And 
we shall discover, as a matter of human nature which is recorded 
in the history of literature and the other arts, that this search 
for intensity of experience leads inevitably to an endless pursuit 
either of increasing degrees of violence of emotion or of increas- 
ingly elusive and more nearly meaningless nuances, and ulti- 
mately to disillusionment with art and with life. It is possible, 
of course, that art and life are really worthless, but on the other 
hand it is possible that they are valuable. And until we have 
made sure that our hedonistic theory offers a true description of 
human experience, that no better description is possible, we 
should be unwise to commit ourselves to it, for the ultimate 
consequences appear both certain and unfortunate. 

The second form of hedonistic theory tends to dissociate the 


artistic experience sharply from all other experience, T. S. Eliot, 
for example, tells us that the human experience about which the 
poem appears to be written has been transmuted in the aesthetic 
process into something new which is different in kind from all 
other experience. The poem is not then, as it superficially ap- 
pears, a statement about a human experience, but is a thing in 
itself. The beginnings of this notion are to be found in Poe and 
are developed further by the French Symbolists, notably by Mal- 
Iarm6. The aim of the poem so conceived is again pleasure, 
pleasure conceived as intensity of emotion; but the emotion is 
of an absolutely special sort. Some such notion of the artistic ex- 
perience is the essential concept of Santayana's aesthetics; in 
fact, it is essential to almost any treatment of "aesthetics" as a 
branch of philosophy, and one will find it everywhere in the 
work of the academic aestheticians of the past half-century. The 
nature of the "aesthetic" experience as conceived in these terms 
has never been clearly defined; we commonly meet here a kind 
of pseudcNmysticism. The chief advantage of this kind of hedon- 
ism over the Paterian variety is that one can adhere to it without 
adhering to a doctrine of ethical hedonism, for art and lift- arc 
absolutely severed from each other. Eliot, for example, considers 
himself a Christian. The chief disadvantage is that it renders in- 
telligible discussion of art impossible, and it relegates art to the 
position of an esoteric indulgence, possibly though not certainly 
harmless, but hardly of sufficient importance to merit a high 
position among other human activities. Art, however, has always 
been accorded a high position, and a true theory of art should 
be able to account for this fact. 

Certain theorists who have been aware that art is more than 
moral precept on the one hand and more than a search for culti- 
vated excitement on the other have tried to account for its com- 
plexity by combining the didactic and the hedonistic theories: 
this gives us the Horatian formula, that art combines profit with 
pleasure. When this formula occurs, as it often does, in the writ- 
ing of a great poet or of some other person who takes his poetry 
seriously, it apparently represents a somewhat rough and ready 
recognition of the fact that poetry has intellectual content and 

something more; that its power is real and cannot be accounted 
for too easily. But if one regard the doctrine itself, and regard 
it as pure theory, it is unsatisfactory; or at any rate it relegates 
art to an unsatisfactory position. For the didactic element in art 
so conceived will be no more efficient as didacticism than we 
have seen it to be before: that is, the serious moralist may quite 
reasonably argue that he prefers to get his teaching in a more 
direct and compact form; and the pleasure is still in the unhappy 
predicament in which we found it in the purely hedonistic 

The Romantic theory of literature takes account more seri- 
ously than the theories which I have thus far mentioned of the 
power which literature seems to exert over human nature, and 
to that extent offers a more realistic view of literature. I am con- 
cerned with literature which may be loosely described as artistic: 
that is, with literature which communicates not only thought 
but also emotion. I do not like the expression imaginative lit- 
erature, for in its colloquial acceptation the phrase excludes too 
much: it excludes the persuasive and hortatory, for example, the 
sermon and the political tract; and imagination as a term of so- 
phisticated criticism has been used so variously and so elusively, 
especially during the past hundred and fifty years, that I am not 
quite sure what it means. But the power of artistic literature is 
real: if we consider such writers as Plato, Augustine, Dante, 
Shakespeare, Rousseau, Voltaire, Emerson, and Hitler, to go no 
further, we must be aware that such literature has been directly 
and indirectly one of the greatest forces in human history. The 
Gospels gave a new direction to half the world; Mem Kampf 
very nearly reversed that direction. The influence of Rimbaud 
and of Mallarm is quite as real but has operated more slowly 
and with less of obvious violence. It behooves us to discover the 
nature of artistic literature, what it does, how it does it, and how 
one may evaluate it. It is one of the facts of life, and quite as 
important a fact as atomic fission. In our universities at present, 
for example, one or another of the hedonistic views of literature 
will be found to dominate, although often colored by Romantic 
ideas, with the result that the professors of literature, who for 


the most part are genteel but mediocre men, can make but a poor 
defence of their profession, and the professors of science, who are 
frequently men of great intelligence but of limited interests and 
education, feel a politely disguised contempt for it; and thus the 
study of one of the most pervasive and powerful influences on 
human life is traduced and neglected. 

The Romantics, however, although they offer a relatively real- 
istic view of the power of literature, offer a fallacious and danger- 
ous view of the nature both of literature and of man. The Ro- 
mantic theory assumes that literature is mainly or even purely 
an emotional experience, that man is naturally good, that man's 
impulses are trustworthy, that the rational faculty is unreliable 
to the point of being dangerous or possibly evil. The Romantic 
theory of human nature teaches that if man will rely upon his 
impulses, he will achieve the good life. When this notion is 
combined, as it frequently is, with a pantheistic philosophy or 
religion, it commonly teaches that through surrender to im- 
pulse man will not only achieve the good life but will achieve 
also a kind of mystical union with the Divinity: this, for ex- 
ample, is the doctrine of Emerson. Literature thus becomes a 
form of what is known popularly as self-expression. It is not the 
business of man to understand and improve himself, for such an 
effort is superfluous: he is good as he is, if he will only let him- 
self alone, or, as we might say, let himself go. The poem is 
valuable because it enables us to share the experience of a man 
who has let himself go, who has expressed his feelings, without 
hindrance, as he has found them at a given moment. The ulti- 
mate ideal at which such a theory aims is automatism. There is 
nothing in the theory to provide a check on such automatism; if 
the individual man is restrained by some streak of personal but 
unformulated common sense, by some framework of habit de- 
rived from a contrary doctrine, such as Christian doctrine, or by 
something in his biological inheritance, that is merely his good 
fortune the Romantic doctrine itself will not restrain him. The 
Romantic doctrine itself will urge him toward automatism. And 
the study of history seems to show that if any doctrine is widely 
accepted for a long period of time, it tends more and more strongly 

to exact conformity from human nature, to alter human nature. 
The Romantic theory of literature and of human nature has been 
the dominant theory in western civilization for about two and 
a half centuries. Its influence is obviously disastrous in litera- 
ture and is already dangerous in other departments of human life. 

There are certain other general notions of human nature and 
of values which are related to the notions which I have been 
discussing, but which are not exactly correlative with them. I 
shall refer to them rather baldly as determinism, relativism, and 

Determinism is that theory of the universe which holds that 
the whole is a single organism, pursuing a single and undeviat- 
ing course which has been predestined by God or determined by 
its own nature. It sees the human being simply as a part of this 
organism, with no independent force of his own. One must dis- 
tinguish sharply between a deterministic theory and a theory 
which recognizes the real existence of influences outside of the 
individual, whether those influences be historical, biological, or 
other. One may even take a pessimistic view of such influences 
without being a determinist. If one admits that man may under- 
stand in some measure the conditions of his existence, that as 
a result of such understanding he may choose a mode of action, 
that as a result of such choice he may persevere in the mode of 
action chosen, and that as a result of his perseverance he may in 
some measure alter the conditions of his existence, then one is 
not a determinist. Few people who profess deterministic doc- 
trines are willing to envisage clearly their implications, how- 
ever. As a result, one will find all three of the views of poetry 
which I have mentioned held by determinists. 

It is natural that deterministic and Romantic theories should 
coincide, for Romanticism teaches the infinite desirability of 
automatism, and determinism teaches the inevitability of autom- 
atism. Determinism is Romanticism in a disillusioned mood; 
Henry Adams is little more than the obverse side of Emerson, 
the dark side of the moon. And since hedonism is, like deter- 
minism, an anti-intellectualistic philosophy and is somewhat 
vague in all its tenets, it is not surprising that determinists should 

sometimes appear as hedonists: since they cannot control in any 
measure the courses of their lives, the determinists sometimes 
find solace in seeking pleasure along the way, without stopping 
to consider that such a search is a willful activity involving at 
least limited consideration and choice. It is curious that the 
didactic view of literature should so often be adopted by deter- 
minists, however, for the determinist really has no right to the 
didactic method. Yet the most vigorous, one might say the most 
religious, of the various species of determinist, such for example 
as the Calvinists of the past and the Marxists of the present, are 
commonly the most didactic of men, both in their literature and 
in their behavior. 

The absolutist believes in the existence of absolute truths and 
values. Unless he is very foolish, he does not believe that he 
personally has free access to these absolutes and that his own 
judgments are final; but he does believe that such absolutes exist 
and that it is the duty of every man and of every society to en- 
deavor as far as may be to approximate them. The relativist, on 
the other hand, believes that there are no absolute truths, that 
the judgment of every man is right for himself. I am aware that 
many persons believe that they have arrived at some kind of 
compromise between these two positions, but actually no com- 
promise is possible. Any such attempt at compromise, if closely 
examined, will exhibit an ultimate allegiance to one position or 
the other or else will exhibit simple confusion. It is popular at 
present to profess relativism and yet in important matters to act 
as if we were absolutists. Our ideas of justice, which we endeavor 
to define by law and for which wars are often fought, can be 
defended only by invoking moral absolutism. Our universities, 
in which relativistic doctrines are widely taught, can justify 
their existence only in terms of a doctrine of absolute truth. The 
professor of English Literature, who believes that taste is relative, 
yet who endeavors to convince his students that Hamlet is more 
worthy of their attention than some currently popular novel, is 
in a serious predicament, a predicament which is moral, intellec- 
tual, and in the narrowest sense professional, though he com- 
monly has not the wit to realize the fact. 

The Romantic is almost inescapably a relativist, for if all men 
follow their impulses there will be a wide disparity of judgments 
and of actions and the fact enforces recognition. The Emer- 
sonian formula is the perfect one: that is right for me which is 
after my constitution; that is right for you which is after yours; 
the common divinity will guide each of us in the way which is 
best for him. The hedonist is usually a relativist and should logi- 
cally be one, but there is often an illicit and veiled recognition of 
absolutism in his attempts to classify the various pleasures as 
more or less valuable, not for himself alone but in general. The 
defender of the didactic view of literature has been traditionally 
an absolutist, but he is not invariably so: didacticism is a method, 
and when one sees literature only as didacticism one sees it as 
a method, and the method may be used, as Emerson used it, to 
disseminate relativistic doctrine. 

The theory of literature which I defend in these essays is ab- 
solutist. I believe that the work of literature, in so far as it is 
valuable, approximates a real apprehension and communication 
of a particular kind of objective truth. The form of literature 
with which I am for the most part concerned is the poem; but 
since the poem exhausts more fully than any other literary form 
the inherent possibilities of language, what I say about poetry 
can be extended to include other literary forms with relatively 
unimportant qualifications, and in point of fact I devote con- 
siderable space to other literary forms. The poem is a statement 
in words about a human experience. Words are primarily con- 
ceptual, but through use and because human experience is not 
purely conceptual, they have acquired connotations of feeling. 
The poet makes his statement in such a way as to employ both 
concept and connotation as efficiently as possible. The poem is 
good in so far as it makes a defensible rational statement about 
a given human experience (the experience need not be real but 
must be in some sense possible) and at the same time communi- 
cates the emotion which ought to be motivated by that rational 
understanding of that experience. This notion of poetry, what- 
ever its defects, will account both for the power of poetry and of 
artistic literature in general on its readers and for the seriousness 


with which the great poets have taken their art. Milton, for ex- 
ample, did not write Paradise Lost to give pleasure to Professor 
So-and-So, nor did he write it to give free rein to his emotions; 
he wrote it in order to justify the ways of God to men, and the 
justification involved not merely a statement of theory but a con- 
formity of the emotional nature of man with the theory. 

Poetry, and in a less definite fashion all artistic literature, in- 
volves not only the two aspects of language which I have just 
mentioned, but also the rhythmic and the formal. Rhythm, for 
reasons which I do not wholly understand, has the power of 
communicating emotion; and as a part of the poem it has the 
power of qualifying the total emotion. What we speak of loosely 
as the "form" of a poem is probably, at least for the most part, 
two-fold: we have on the one hand the rational structure of the 
poem, the orderly arrangement and progression of thought; and 
we have on the other a kind of rhythm broader and less easily 
measurable than the rhythm of the line the poem exists in time, 
the mind proceeds through it in time, and if the poet is a good 
one he take advantage of this fact and makes the progression 
rhythmical. These aspects of the poem will be efficient in so 
far as the poet subordinates them to the total aim of the poem. 

One criticism which has been made of me repeatedly is this: 
that I wish to discard every poem to which I make objections. 
This is not true. Probably no poem is perfect in the eye of God. 
So far as I am concerned, a good many poems approach so nearly 
to perfection that I find them satisfactory. But there are many 
poems which seem to me obviously imperfect and even very 
seriously imperfect, which I have no wish to discard. Some of 
these I have analyzed both in respect to their virtues and to their 
defects; others, because of the nature of my discussion, mainly 
with reference to their defects; but I have dealt with few works 
which do not seem to me to have discernible virtues, for to do 
otherwise would seem to me a waste of time. If we were all to 
emulate Hart Crane, the result would be disastrous to literature 
and to civilization; it is necessary to understand the limitations 
of Hart Crane, which are of the utmost seriousness; but when we 
understand those limitations, we are in a position to profit by his 


virtues with impunity, and his virtues are sometimes very great. 
If we are not aware of his limitations but are sufficiently sensi- 
tive to guess in some fashion at his virtues, he may easily take 
possession of us wholly. This difficulty indicates the function of 

Certain poetry of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries ap- 
proximates most closely the qualities which seem to me the best. 
It seems to me, as it has seemed to many others, that there has 
been a general deterioration of the quality of poetry since the 
opening of the eighteenth century. Like many others, I have 
endeavored to account for this deterioration. It would surprise 
no one if I stated that Collins' Ode to Evening was an im- 
perfect and secondary poem if judged in comparison with all 
English poetry; but it arouses antagonism when I give reasons, 
partly because there is a general dislike for reasons, and partly 
because my reasons are not complimentary to the orthodoxies 
of our time. I regret the antagonism, but since I believe my rea- 
sons to be sound and the matter in general serious, I must main- 
tain my position and take the consequences. These essays, then, 
endeavor not only to defend a theory of poetry and to judge 
certain writers with reference to that theory, but to outline as 
far as this kind of writing permits certain historical tendencies 
and the reasons for them. I do this in the hope that my efforts 
may in some small measure contribute to the alteration of these 
tendencies; our literary culture (to mention nothing more) ap- 
pears to me to be breaking up, and the rescue of it appears to me 
a matter of greater moment than the private feelings of some 
minor poet or scholar. 

I should perhaps call attention to one other matter in connec- 
tion with my aims. It seems to me impossible to judge the value 
of any idea in a vacuum. That is, the hedonistic view of litera- 
ture may conceivably appear sound, or the relativistic view of 
literature and morals may appear sound, if the idea is circum- 
scribed by a few words. But either idea implies a fairly complete 
description of a large range of human experience, and if the 
description does not agree with the facts as we are forced to 
recognize them, then something is wrong. I am acquainted, for 


example, with the arguments which prove that the wall is not 
there, but if I try to step through the wall, I find that the wall 
is there notwithstanding the arguments. During the past century 
or so, the number of poets who have endeavored to conform 
their practice to the ideas which seem to me unsound has been 
rather large, and we can judge the ideas more or less clearly in 
the light of these experiments. A large part of this book is de- 
voted to the analysis of such experiments. 

Finally, I am aware that my absolutism implies a theistic posi- 
tion, unfortunate as this admission may be. If experience appears 
to indicate that absolute truths exist, that we are able to work 
toward an approximate apprehension of them, but that they are 
antecedent to our apprehension and that our apprehension is 
seldom and perhaps never perfect, then there is only one place in 
which those truths may be located, and I see no way to escape 
this conclusion. I merely wish to point out that my critical and 
moral notions are derived from the observation of literature and 
of life, and that my theism is derived from my critical and moral 
notions. I cjid not proceed from the opposite direction. 

All of the concepts outlined briefly and incompletely in this 
foreword, with the exception of that mentioned in the last para- 
graph, will be found more fully explained at various points in 
the present volume. These remarks are not offered as a complete 
statement, but are offered merely as a guide and an introduction. 

Primitivism and 



BEFORE ATTEMPTING TO ELUCIDATE or to criticize a poetry so dif- 
ficult and evasive as that of the best moderns, it would appear wise 
to summarize as clearly as possible those qualities for which one 
looks in a poem. We may say that a poem in the first place should 
offer us new perceptions, not only of the exterior universe, but of 
human experience as well; it should add, in other words, to what 
we have already seen. This is the elementary function for the 
reader. The corresponding function for the poet is a sharpening 
and training of his sensibilities; the very exigencies of the me- 
dium as he employs it in the act of perception should force him 
to the discovery of values which he never would have found 
without the convening of all the conditions of that particular act, 
conditions one or more of which will be the necessity of solving 
some particular difficulty such as the location of a rhyme or the 
perfection of a cadence without disturbance to the remainder of 
the poem. The poet who suffers from such difficulties instead of 
profiting by them is only in a rather rough sense a poet at all. 

If, however, the difficulties of versification are a stimulant 
merely to the poet, the reader may argue that he finds them a 
hindrance to himself and that he prefers some writer of prose 
who appears to offer him as much with less trouble to all con- 
cerned. The answer to such a reader is that the appearance of 
equal richness in the writer of prose is necessarily deceptive. 

For language is a kind of abstraction, even at its most concrete; 
such a word as "cat," for instance, is generic and not particular. 
Such a word becomes particular only in so far as it gets into some 
kind of experiential complex, which qualifies it and limits it, 

which gives it, in short, a local habitation as well as a name. Such 
a complex is the poetic line or other unit, which, in turn, should 
be a functioning part of the larger complex, or poem. This is, I 
imagine, what Mallarm6 should have had in mind when he 
demanded that the poetic line be a new word, not found in any 
dictionary, and partaking of the nature of incantation (that is, 
having the power to materialize, or perhaps it would be more 
accurate to say, Toeing, a new experience.) 1 

The poem, to be perfect, should likewise be a new word in the 

1 St6phane Mallarme*: Avant-Dire du Traite du Verbe, par Ren6 Ghil. 
Giraud, 18 Rue Drouot, Paris. 1886. Actually, Mallarme" seems to have had 
more in mind, though he should have had no more, in my opinion. The margin 
of difference is the margin in which post-romantic theory has flourished and 
from which post-romantic poetry has sprung. I quote the entire curious passage: 

"Un de*sir inde*niable a re*poque est de se*parer comme en vue d'attributions 
diffe*rentes, le double e*tat de la parole, brut ou immediate ici, la essentiel. 

"Narrer, enseigner, mme de"crire, cela va et encore qu'a chacun sumrait 
peut-tre, pour echanger toute pense*e humaine, de prendre ou de mettre dans 
la main d'autrui en silence une piece de monnaie, 1'emploi elementaire du dis- 
cours dessert Tuniversel reportage dont, la Litterature excepte"e, participe tout, 
entre les genres d'ecrits contemporains. 

"A quoi bon la merveille de transposer un fait de nature en sa presque dis- 
parition vibratoire selon le jeu de la parole cependant, si ce n'est pour qu'on 
emane, sans la gne d'un proche ou concret rappel, la notion pure? 

"Je dis: une fleur! et, hors de 1'oubli ou ma voix relegue aucun contour, en 
tant que quelque chose d'autre que les calices sus, musicalement se leve, ide 
rieuse ou altiere, 1'absente de tous bouquets. 

"Au contraire d'une fonction de numeraire facile et repre*sentatif, comme le 
traite d'abord la foule, le parler qui est, apres tout, reVe et chant, retrouve chez 
le poete, par ne*cessit constitutive d'un art consacre* aux fictions, sa virtualite*. 
Le vers qui de plusierus vocables refait un mot total, neuf, etranger a la 
langue et comme incantatoire, acheve cet isolement de la parole: niant, d'un 
trait souverain, le hasard demeure* aux termes malgre* I'artifice de leur retrempe 
alterne'e en le sens et la sonorite", et vous cause cette surprise de n'avoir oui 
jamais tel fragment ordinaire d'elocution, en m^me temps que la reminiscence 
de Fobjet nomm^ baigne dans une clairvoyante atmosphere." 

This is in some respects an admirable summary, and is certainly important 
historically. The entire tendency of the passage is to encourage the elimination 
of the rational from poetry. One should observe the sequence: "narrer, en- 
seigner, m&me decrire," as if description were more nearly poetic than the 
other activities. The word essentiel, at the end of the first paragraph is the 
crux of the whole passage. The critic savs that words have an obvious (that is, 
a rational) meaning, and a fringe of feeling, which he chooses to call essential: 
if only one kind of content is essential, we are naturally inclined to try to 
eliminate the other, and we have in this confusion, which reappears spon- 
taneously, and without any discernible indebtedness to Mallarme', in each suc- 
cessive generation of post-romantic poets, the real basis for post-romantic ob- 
scurantism. The sound idea that a poem is more than its rational content is thus 
perverted and distorted. 


same sense, a word of which the line, as we have defined it, is 
merely a syllable. Such a word is, of course, composed of much 
more than the sum of its words (as one normally uses the term) 
and its syntax. It is composed of an almost fluid complex, if the 
adjective and the noun are not too nearly contradictory, of rela- 
tionships between words (in the normal sense of the term), a 
relationship involving rational content, cadences, rhymes, juxta- 
positions, literary and other connotations, inversions, and so on, 
almost indefinitely. These relationships, it should be obvious, 
extend the poet's vocabulary incalculably. They partake of the 
fluidity and unpredictability of experience and so provide a 
means of treating experience with precision and freedom. If the 
poet does not wish, as, actually, he seldom does, to reproduce a 
given experience with approximate exactitude, he can employ the 
experience as a basis for a new experience that will be just as 
real, in the sense of being particular, and perhaps more valuable. 

Now verse is more valuable than prose in this process for the 
simple reasons that its rhythms are faster and more highly organ- 
ized than are those of prose, and so lend themselves to a greater 
complexity and compression of relationship, and that the inten- 
sity of this convention renders possible a greater intensity of 
other desirable conventions, such as poetic language and devices 
of rhetoric. The writer of prose must substitute bulk for this 
kind of intensity; he must define his experience ordinarily by 
giving all of its past history, the narrative logic leading up to it, 
whereas the experiential relations given in a good lyric poem, 
though particular in themselves, are applicable without alteration 
to a good many past histories. In this sense, the lyric is general 
as well as particular; in fact, this quality of transferable or gen- 
eralized experience might be regarded as the defining quality of 
lyrical poetry. 

What I have just said should make plain the difficulty of com- 
prehending a poem exactly and fully; its total intention may be 
very different from its paraphrasable, or purely logical content. If 
one take, for example, Mr. Allen Tate's sonnet, The Subway, 
and translate it into good scholarly prose, using nothing but the 
rational content of the poem as a reference, one will find the 


author saying that as a result of his ideas and of his metropolitan 
environment, he is going mad. Now as a matter of fact, the poem 
says nothing of the sort: 

Dark accurate plunger down the successive knell 
Of arch on arch, -where ogives hurst a red 
Reverberance of hail upon the dead 
Thunder, like an exploding crucible! 
Harshly articulate, musical steel shell 
Of angry worship, hurled religiously 
Upon your business of humility 
Into the iron forestries of hell! 

Till broken in the shift of quieter 

Dense altitudes tangential of your steel, 

1 am become geometries and glut 

Expansions like a blind astronomer 

Dazed, while the worldless heavens bulge and reel 

In the cold revery of an idiot. 

The sonnet indicates that the author has faced and defined the 
possibility of the madness that I have mentioned (a possibility 
from the consideration of which others as well as himself may 
have found it impossible to escape) and has arrived at a moral 
attitude toward it, an attitude which is at once defined and com- 
municated by the poem. This attitude is defined only by the entire 
poem, not by the logical content alone; it is a matter not only of 
logical content, but of feeling as well. The feeling is particular 
and unparaphrasable, but one may indicate the nature of it 
briefly by saying that it is a feeling of dignity and of self-control 
in the face of a situation of major difficulty, a difficulty which the 
poet fully apprehends. This feeling is inseparable from what we 
call poetic form, or unity, for the creation of a form is nothing 
more nor less than the act of evaluating and shaping (that is, 
controlling) a given experience. It should be obvious that any 
attempt to reduce the rational content of such a poem would 

tend to confuse or even to eliminate the feeling: the poem con- 
sists in the relationship between the two. 

To reenforce my point, I shall take the liberty of quoting an- 
other poem, this one by Mr. Howard Baker, in which something 
comparable occurs. The title is Pont Neuf: 

Henry the Fourth rides in bronze, 

His shoulders curved and pensive, thrust 

Enormously into electric 

Blazonments of a Christmas trust. 

Children pass him aghast and pleased, 
Reflective of the ftickerings 
Of jerky hears and clowns. Alone, 
Astute to all the bickerings 

Of age and death rides Henry the Grand. 
A lean tug shudders in the Seine; 
And Notre Dame is black, a relic 
Of the blood of other men. 

Peace to the other men! And peace 
To the mind that has no century, 
And sees the savage pull the statue down, 
And down the bear and clown. 

The spiritual control in a poem, then, is simply a manifestation 
of the spiritual control within the poet, and, as I have already 
indicated, it may have been an important means by which the 
poet arrived at a realization of spiritual control. This conception 
must not be confused with the conception of the poem as a safety 
valve, by which feeling is diverted from action, by which the 
writer escapes from an attitude by pouring it into his work and 
leaving it behind him. The conception which I am trying to de- 
fine is a conception of poetry as a technique of contemplation, of 
comprehension, a technique which does not eliminate the need 


of philosophy or of religion, but which, rather, completes and 
enriches them. 

One feels, whether rightly or wrongly, a correlation between 
the control evinced within a poem and the control within the poet 
behind it. The laxity of the one ordinarily appears to involve lax- 
ity in the other. The rather limp versification of Mr. Eliot and of 
Mr. MacLeish is inseparable from the spiritual limpness that one 
feels behind the poems, as the fragmentary, ejaculatory, and over- 
excited quality of a great many of the poems of Hart Crane is 
inseparable from the intellectual confusion upon which these 
particular poems seem to rest (for examples, The Dance, Cape 
Hatteras, and Atlantis^). Crane possessed great energy, but his 
faculties functioned clearly only within a limited range of experi- 
ence (Repose of Rivers, Voyages II, Faustus and Helen II). Out- 
side of that range he was either numb (My Grandmother's Love- 
letters and Harbor Dawn) or unsure of himself and hence un- 
certain in his detail (as in The River, a very powerful poem in 
spite of its poor construction and its quantities of bad writing) or 
both (see Indiana, probably one of the worst poems in modern 
literature). Many of the poems of Mr. Eliot and of Mr. Mac- 
Leish could be reduced by paraphrase to about the same thing as 
my paraphrase of Mr. Tate's sonnet; the difference between 
them and Mr. Tate in this connection is that, as the form of 
nearly all of their poems is much looser to start with, the process 
of paraphrasing would constitute a much slighter act of betrayal. 
And we must not forget that this quality, form, is not something 
outside the poet, something "aesthetic/' and superimposed upon 
his moral content; it is essentially a part, in fact it may be the 
decisive part, of the moral content, even though the poet may be 
arriving at the final perfection of the condition he is communicat- 
ing while he communicates it and in a large measure as a result 
of the act and technique of communication. For the communica- 
tion is first of all with himself: it is, as I have said, the last re- 
finement of contemplation. 

I should pause here to remark that many writers have sought 
to seize the fluidity of experience by breaking down the limits 
of form, but that in so doing, they defeat their own ends. For, 


as I have shown, writing, as it approaches the looseness of prose 
and departs from the strictness of verse, tends to lose the capacity 
for fluid or highly complex relationships between words; lan- 
guage, in short, reapproaches its original stiffness and generality; 
and one is forced to recognize the truth of what appears a para- 
dox, that the greatest fluidity of statement is possible where the 
greatest clarity of form prevails. It is hard to see how the exist- 
ence of such a work as Mr. Joyce's latest creation 2 can be any- 
thing but precarious, in spite of its multitudes of incidental felici- 
ties; for it departs from the primary condition of prose coherent 
and cumulative logic or narrative without, since it is, finally, 
prose, achieving the formal precision of verse. These remarks 
should not be construed, however, as an argument against free 
verse, though, with proper qualification, they could be brought 
to bear in such an argument. The free verse that is really verse 
the best, that is, of W. C. Williams, H. D., Miss Moore, Wallace 
Stevens, and Ezra Pound is, in its peculiar fashion, the antith- 
esis of free, and the evaluation of this verse is a difficult prob- 
lem in itself. 

Thus we see that the poet, in striving toward an ideal of poetic 
form at which he has arrived through the study of other poets, is 
actually striving to perfect a moral attitude toward that range of 
experience of which he is aware. Such moral attitudes are con- 
tagious from poet to poet, and, within the life of a single poet, 
from poem to poem. The presence of Hardy and Arnold, let us 
say, in so far as their successful works offer us models and their 
failures warnings or unfulfilled suggestions, should make it easier 
to write good poetry; they should not only aid us, by providing 
standards of sound feeling, to test the soundness of our own 
poems, but, since their range of experience is very wide, they 
should aid us, as we are able to enter and share their experience, 
to grow into regions that we had not previously mastered or per- 
haps even discovered. The discipline of imitation is thus valuable 
if it leads to understanding and assimilation. Too often a minor 
poet or other reader will recognize in such a master the validity 
of only that part of the master's experience which corresponds to 

'Entitled at this writing (1935) Work in Progress. (Ultimately published 
as Finnegans Wake.) 2 2 

his own limited range, and will rule out the poetry to which he 
is consequently numb as sentimental or otherwise imperfect. In- 
flexibility of critical opinion in such matters is not particularly 
conducive to growth. 

Random experiment may have a related value: one may hit 
on a form (perhaps the rough idea or draft of a form) which in- 
duces some new state or states of mind. I regard as fallacious the 
notion that form is determined by a precedent attitude or a prec- 
edent subject matter, at least invariably: the form (that is, the 
general idea of a certain type of form) may precede, and the 
attitude, in any case, is never definite till the form is achieved. 3 
It does not follow that any attitude resulting from random experi- 
ment is intrinsically desirable; undesirable attitudes, like desir- 
able, are contagious and may spread widely; it is here that 
criticism becomes necessary. A failure, however, to achieve some- 
thing valuable may offer a valuable suggestion to someone else. 
The poet who has succeeded once or twice in mastering difficult 
and central emotions and in recording his mastery for future 
reference should find it easier to succeed again. 

I am not endeavoring in the two foregoing paragraphs to estab- 
lish poetry as a substitute for philosophy or for religion. Religion 
is highly desirable if it is really available to the individual; the 
study of philosophy is always available and is of incalculable 
value as a preliminary and as a check to activities as a poet and as 
a critic (that is, as an intelligent reader). I am, then, merely 
attempting to define a few of the things which poetry does. 

It would perhaps be wise to add another caution : I suffer from 
no illusion that any man who can write a good poem has a nat- 
urally sweet moral temper or that the man who has written three 
good poems is a candidate for canonization. Literary history is 
packed with sickening biographies. But it is worth noting that 
the poetry of such a man, say, as Rochester (who in this is typical 
of his age) displays a mastery of an extremely narrow range of 

8 As a single example, consider the manner in which the Petrarchan experi- 
menters in England, most of them feeble poets and the best of them given to 
empty and inflated reasoning, worked out the technique of reasoning elaoorately 
in graceful lyrical verse and bequeathed that technique to the 17th century: 
the form preceded the matter. 


experience, and that his moral brutality falls almost wholly in 
those regions (nearly every region save that of worldly manners, 
if we except some few poems, notably Upon Nothing, Absent 
from Thee, and, possibly, A Song of a Young Lady to Her 
Ancient Lover, in which last there is a curious blending of the 
erotic with deep moral feeling) with which his poetry fails to 
deal or with which it deals badly. 

This statement requires elucidation. Rochester frequently 
writes of his debauchery, and sometimes writes well of it, but in 
the best poems on the subject, in such poems as The Maimd 
Debauchee and Upon Drinking in a Bowl, he writes, as do his 
contemporaries in the comedy, as a witty and satirical gentleman : 
the wit inspired by the material is mastered, and other aspects of 
the material are ignored. In the worst poems on more or less 
similar material (for examples, the numerous lampoons upon 
Charles II and upon Nell Gwyn) we have a grossness of feeling 
comparable to that of his worst actions. All of this, however, de- 
tracts not in the least from the quality of Rochester's best poetry, 
which is remarkably fine; Rochester seldom extends the stand- 
ards which he recognizes into fields to which they are inap- 
plicable, and hence he is seldom guilty of false evaluation. In 
reading him, one is aware that he is a sound and beautiful poet, 
and that there are greater poets. That is all of which one has a 
right to be aware. 4 

If a poem, in so far as it is good, ^presents the comprehension 
on a moral plane of a given experience, it is only fair to add that 
some experiences offer very slight difficulties and some very great, 
and that the poem will be the most valuable, which, granted it 
achieves formal perfection, represents the most difficult victory. 
In the great tragic poets, such as Racine or Shakespeare, one feels 
that a victory has been won over life itself, so much is implicated 
in the subject matter; that feeling is the source of their power 
over us, whereas a slighter poet will absorb very little of our ex- 
perience and leave the rest untouched. 

This requisite seems to be ignored in a large measure by a good 

* The Collected Poems of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, edited by John 
Hayward. The Nonesuch Press, 16 Great James St., London, W.C. 1926. 


many contemporary poets of more or less mystical tendencies, 
who avoid the difficult task of mastering the more complex forms 
of experience by setting up a theoretic escape from them and by 
then accepting that escape with a good deal of lyrical enthusiasm. 
Such an escape is offered us, I fear, by Hart Crane, in one of the 
most extraordinary sections of his volume, The Bridge, 6 in the 
poem called The Dance, and such escapes are often employed by 
Mr. Yeats. In the religious poets of the past, one encounters this 
vice very seldom; the older religions are fully aware that the 
heart, to borrow the terms of a poem by Janet Lewis, is untranslat- 
able, whatever may be true of the soul, and that one can escape 
from the claims of the world only by understanding those claims 
and by thus accustoming oneself to the thought of eventually 
putting them by. This necessity is explicitly the subject of one of 
Sidney's greatest sonnets, Leave me, O Love, which readiest hut 
to dust, and of the greatest poem by George Herbert, Church 
Monuments; one can find it elsewhere. The attitude is humane, 
and does not belittle nor evade the magnitude of the task; it is 
essentially a tragic attitude. 

For this reason, the religious fervor of Gerard Hopkins, of 
John Donne, or of George Herbert should weaken but little the 
force of most of their poems for the non-believer, just as the 
deterministic doctrines, whatever their nature and extent, to be 
found in Hardy, should not weaken for us those poems which do 
not deal too pugnaciously with the doctrines, and for the same 
reason. Though a belief in any form of determinism should, if 
the belief is pushed to its logical ends, eliminate the belief in, 
and consequently the functioning of, whatever it is that we call 
the will, yet there is no trace of any kind of disintegration in 
Hardy's poetic style, in his sense of form, which we have seen to 
be, so far as writing is concerned, identical with the will or the 
ability to control and shape one's experience. The tragic neces- 
sity of putting by the claims of the world without the abandon- 
ment of self-control, without loss of the ability to go on living, 
for the present, intelligently and well, is just as definitely the 
subject of Hardy's poetry as of Herbert's. We have in both poets 

6 The Bridge, by Hart Crane, Horace Liveright: N. Y.: 1930. 

a common moral territory which is far greater than are the theo- 
logical regions which they do not share; for, on the one hand, 
the fundamental concepts of morality are common to intelligent 
men regardless of theological orientation, except in so far as 
morality may be simply denied or ignored, and, on the other 
hand, the Absolute is in its nature inscrutable and offers little 
material for speculation, except in so far as it is a stimulus to 
moral speculation. It would be difficult, I think, to find a devo- 
tional poem of which most of the implications were not moral 
and universal. So with Hardy: his determinism was mythic and 
animistic and tended to dramatize the human struggle, whereas 
a genuinely rational and coherent determinism would have 
eliminated the human struggle. He was thrown back upon tradi- 
tional literary and folk wisdom in working out moral situations, 
and for these situations his mythology provided a new setting, 
sometimes magnificent, sometimes melodramatic, but, thanks to 
its rational incompleteness, not really destructive of a working 
morality. Like many another man who has been unable to think 
clearly, he was saved by the inability to think coherently: had he 
been coherent, he would probably have been about as interesting 
as Godwin; as it is, his professed beliefs and his working beliefs 
have only a little in common, and the former damage his work 
only in a fragmentary way, as when satires of circumstance are 
dragged into a novel or isolated in a poem to prove a point (and 
they can prove nothing, of course) and usually to the detriment 
of coherent feeling and understanding. 

Crane's attitude, on the other hand, often suggests a kind of 
theoretic rejection of all human endeavor in favor of some 
vaguely apprehended but ecstatically asserted existence of a 
superior sort. As the exact nature of the superior experience is 
uncertain, it forms a rather uncertain and infertile source of 
material for exact poetry; one can write poetry about it only by 
utilizing in some way more or less metaphorical the realm of ex- 
perience from which one is trying to escape; but as one is en- 
deavoring to escape from this realm, not to master it and under- 
stand it, one's feelings about it are certain to be confused, and 
one's imagery drawn from it is bound to be largely formulary and 

devoid of meaning. That is, in so far as one endeavors to deal 
with the Absolute, not as a means of ordering one's moral per- 
ception but as the subject itself of perception, one will tend to 
say nothing, despite the multiplication of words. In The Dance 
there seems to be an effort to apply to each of two mutually ex- 
lusive fields the terms of the other. This is a vice of which 
i \ochester was not guilty. 

Crane's best work, such as Repose of Rivers and Voyages II, 
is not confused, but one feels that the experience is curiously 
limited and uncomplicated: it is between the author, isolated 
from most human complications, and Eternity. Crane becomes in 
such poems a universal symbol of the human mind in a par- 
ticular situation, a fact which is the source of his power, but of 
the human mind in very nearly the simplest form of that situ- 
ation, a fact which is the source of his limitation. 

Objective proof of this assertion cannot be found in the poems, 
any more than proof of the opposite quality can be found in 
Hardy; it is in each poet a matter of feeling invading the poetry 
mainly by'Vvay of the non-paraphrasable content: one feels the 
fragility of Crane's finest work, just as one feels the richness of 
Hardy's. Hardy is able to utilize, for example, great ranges of 
literary, historical, and other connotations in words and cadences; 
one feels behind each word the history of the word and the gen- 
erations of men who embodied that history; Hardy gets somehow 
at the wealth of the race. It should be observed again how the 
moral discipline is involved in the literary discipline, how it be- 
comes, at times, almost a matter of living philology. From the 
greater part of this wealth Crane appears to be isolated and con- 
tent to remain isolated. His isolation, like Hardy's immersion, 
was in part social and unavoidable, but a clearer mind and a more 
fixed intention might have overcome much of the handicap. 

I should like to forestall one possible objection to the theory 
of poetry which I am trying to elucidate. Poetry, as a moral dis- 
cipline, should not be regarded as one more means of escape. 
That is, moral responsibility should not be transferred from 
action to paper in the face of a particular situation. Poetry, if pur- 
sued either by the poet or by the reader, in the manner which 

I have suggested, should offer a means of enriching one's aware- 
ness of human experience and of so rendering greater the pos- 
sibility of intelligence in the course of future action; and it 
should offer likewise a means of inducing certain more or less 
constant habits of feeling, which should render greater the pos- 
sibility of one's acting, in a future situation, in accordance wit! 
the findings of one's improved intelligence. It should, in othe* 
words, increase the intelligence and strengthen the moral temper; 
these effects should naturally be carried over into action, if, 
through constant discipline, they are made permanent acqui- 
sitions. If the poetic discipline is to have steadiness and direction, 
it requires an antecedent discipline of ethical thinking and of at 
least some ethical feeling, which may be in whole or in part the 
gift of religion or of a social tradition, or which may be largely the 
result of individual acquisition by way of study. The poetic dis- 
cipline includes the antecedent discipline and more: it is the 
richest and most perfect technique of contemplation. 

This view of poetry in its general outline is not original, but is 
a restatement of ideas that have been current in English criticism 
since the time of Sidney, that have appeared again in most of 
the famous apologists for poetry since Sidney, especially in 
Arnold and in Newman. In summarizing these ideas, I have 
merely endeavored to illuminate a few of the more obscure re- 
lationships and to dispose of them in such a way as to prepare 
the reader for various analyses of poetic method which I intend, 
in other essays, to undertake. Poetic morality and poetic feeling 
are inseparable; feeling and technique, or structure, are insepa- 
rable. Technique has laws which govern poetic (and perhaps 
more general) morality more widely than is commonly recog- 
nized. It is my intention to examine them. 



An Analytical Survey of Its Structural Methods, 
Exclusive of Meter 

DURING THE SECOND and third decades of the twentieth century, 
the chief poetic talent of the United States took certain new 
directions, directions that appear to me in the main regrettable. 
The writers between Robinson and Frost, on the one hand, and 
Allen Tate and Howard Baker on the other, who remained rela- 
tively traditional in manner were with few exceptions minor or 
negligible;^the more interesting writers, as I shall endeavor to 
show in these pages, were misguided, and in discussing them I 
shall have little to say of their talents, their ineliminable virtues, 
but shall rather take these for granted. 

In order that I may evaluate the new structural methods, I 
shall have first to describe at least briefly the old. Inasmuch as 
a wider range of construction is possible in the short poem than 
in any of the longer literary forms, I shall deal with principles 
that are fundamental to all literary composition, and shall here 
and there have recourse to illustrations drawn from the novel or 
perhaps from the drama. The virtues of the traditional modes 
of construction will be indicated chiefly in connection with my 
discussion of the defects of the recent experimental modes. 


KENNETH BURKE HAS NAMED and described this method without 
evaluating it. 1 It is the simplest and most primitive method pos- 

1 In Counterstatement (Harcourt, Brace and Co.: 1932). 

sible, and is still in common use; if limited to a short lyrical form, 
it may still be highly effective. It consists in a restatement in suc- 
cessive stanzas of a single theme, the terms, or images, being 
altered in each restatement. Two of the finest poems in the form 
are Nashe's poem on the plague (Adieu! Farewell earth's Hiss) 
and Raleigh's poem entitled The Lie. In such a poem there is no 
rational necessity for any order of sequence, the order being deter- 
mined wholly by the author's feeling about the graduation of 
importance or intensity. Nevertheless, such a poem rests on a 
formulable logic, however simple; that is, the theme can be para- 
phrased in general terms. Such a paraphrase, of course, is not the 
equivalent of a poem: a poem is more than its paraphrasable con- 
tent. But, as we shall eventually see, many poems cannot be para- 
phrased and are therefore defective. 

The method of repetition is essentially the same today as it 
has always been, if we confine our attention to the short poem. 
Of recent years, however, there has been a tendency to extend 
it into longer forms, with unfortunate results. Such extension is 
the chief method of Whitman, and results in a form both lax 
and diffuse. Such extension occurs even in many modern attempts 
at narrative, both in prose and in verse. To illustrate what I say, 
I shall venture to summarize the structural defects of the narra- 
tive poetry of Robinson Jeffers: 

Mr. Jeffers is theologically some kind of monist. He envisages, 
as did Wordsworth, nature as Deity; but his Nature is the Nature 
of the text-book in physics and not that of the rambling botanist 
Mr. Jeffers seems to have taken the terminology of modern 
physics more literally than it is meant by its creators. Nature, or 
God, is thus a kind of self-sufficient mechanism, of which man is 
a product, but from which man is cut off by his humanity (just 
what gave rise to this humanity, which is absolutely severed from 
all communication with God, is left for others to decide) : as there 
is no mode of communication with God or from God, God is 
praised adequately only by the screaming demons that make up 
the atom. Man, if he accepts this dilemma as necessary, can 
choose between two modes of action : he may renounce God and 

3 1 

rely upon his humanity, or he may renounce his humanity and 
rely upon God. 

In the narratives preceding Cawdor 2 and in most of the lyrics, 
Mr. Jeffers preaches the second choice. In Cawdor and in Thur- 
so's Landing* he has attempted a compromise: that is, while 
the tragic characters recognize that the second choice would be 
the more reasonable, they make the first in a kind of half-hearted 
stubbornness. They insist on living, but without knowing why, 
and without any good to which to look forward save the final 
extinction in God, when it comes ,in God's time. Their stubborn- 
ness is meaningless. 

Life as such is incest, an insidious and destructive evil. So 
much, says Mr. Jeffers by implication, for Greek and Christian 
ethics. Now the mysticism of such a man as San Juan de la Cruz 
offers at least the semblance of a spiritual, a human, discipline as 
a preliminary to union with Divinity; but for Mr. Jeffers a simple 
and mechanical device lies always ready; namely, suicide, a de- 
vice to which he has, I believe, never resorted. 

In refusing to take this step, however, Mr. Jeffers illustrates 
one of a very interesting series of romantic compromises. The 
romantic of the ecstatically pantheistic type denies life yet goes 
on living; 4 nearly all romantics decry the intellect and philosophy, 
yet they offer justifications, necessarily incoherent but none the 
less rational in intention, of their attitude, they are prone to be- 
little literary technique, yet they write, and too often with small 
efficiency; they preach, in the main, the doctrine of moral 
equivalence, yet their every action, whether private or literary, 
since it rests on a choice, is a denial of the doctrine. Not all 
romantics are guilty of all these forms of confusion, but the 
romantic who is guilty of all is more consistent thah is he who 
is guilty only of some, for all inhere in each from a rational 
standpoint. And Mr. Jeffers, having decried human life, and 
having denied the worth of the rules of the game, endeavors to 

* Cawdor and Other Poems, by Robinson Jeffers. Horace Liveright, New 
York, 1928. 

'TJwrso's Landing, same. Liveright Inc., New York, 1932. 

4 Hart Crane, unlike Mr. Jeffers, demonstrated the seriousness of his convic- 
tion, but the demonstration did nothing to clarify his concepts. 

write narrative and dramatic poems, poems, in other words, deal- 
ing with people who are playing the game. Jesus, the hero of Dear 
Judas, 6 speaking apparently for Mr. Jeffers, says that the secret 
reason for the doctrine of forgiveness is that all men are driven 
to act as they do, by the mechanism-God, that they are entirely 
helpless; yet he adds in the next breath that this secret must br* 
guarded, for if it were given out, men would run amuck the^ 
would begin acting differently. 6 

The Women at Point Sur 7 is a perfect laboratory of Mr. Jeffers' 
philosophy and a perfect example of his narrative method. Bar- 
clay, an insane divine, preaches Mr. Jeffers' religion, and his dis- 
ciples, acting upon it, become emotional mechanisms, lewd and 
twitching conglomerations of plexuses, their humanity annulled. 
Human experience in these circumstances, having necessarily 
and according to the doctrine, no meaning, there can be no neces- 
sary sequence of events: every act is equivalent to every other; 
every act is devoid of consequence and occurs in a perfect vac- 
uum; most of the incidents could be shuffled about into different 
sequences without violating anything save Mr. Jeffers' sense of 
their relative intensity. 

Since the poem is his, of course, this sense may appear a legiti- 
mate criterion; the point is, that this is not a narrative nor a 
dramatic but is a lyrical criterion. A successful lyrical poem of 
one hundred and seventy-five pages is unlikely, for the essence of 
lyrical expression is concentration; but it is at least hypotheti- 
cally possible. The difficulty here is that the lyric achieves its 
effect by the generalization of experience (that is, the motiva- 
tion of the lyric is stated or implied in a summary form, and is 
ordinarily not given in detailed narrative) and by the concentra- 
tion of expression; lyrical poetry tends to be expository. Narra- 
tive can survive fairly well without distinction of style, provided 
the narrative logic is complete and compelling, as in the work* 

Dear Judas (Horace Liveright: 1929). 

* This dilemma is not new in American literature. In the eighteenth century, 
Jonathan Edwards accomplished a revival in the Puritan Church, that is, in- 
duced large numbers of sinners to repent and enter the church, by preaching 
the doctrine of election and the inability to repent. 

''The Women at Point Sur (Boni and Liveright: 1927). 


of Balzac, though this occurs most often in prose. Now Mr. 
Jeffers, as I have pointed out, has abandoned narrative logic with 
the theory of ethics, and he has never, in addition, achieved a 
distinguished style: his writing, line by line, is pretentious trash. 
There are a few good phrases, but they are very few, and none is 

Mr. Jeffers has no method of sustaining his lyric, then, other 
than the employment of an accidental (that is, a non-narrative 
and repetitious) series of anecdotes (that is, of details that are 
lyrically impure, details clogged with too much information to 
be able to function properly as lyrical details); his philosophical 
doctrine and his artistic dilemma alike decree that these shall be 
at an hysterical pitch of feeling. By this method, Mr. Jeffers con- 
tinually lays claim to extreme feeling, which has no support 
whether of structure or of detail and which is therefore simply un- 
mastered and self-inflicted hysteria. 

Cawdor contains a plot which in its rough outlines might be 
sound, and Cawdor likewise contains his best poetry: the lines 
describing the seals at dawn, especially, are very good. But the 
plot is blurred for lack of style and for lack of moral intelligence 
on the part of the author. As in Thurso's Landing, of which the 
writing is much worse, the protagonists desire to live as the result 
of a perfectly unreasoning and meaningless stubbornness, and 
their actions are correspondingly obscure. Mr. Jeffers will not 
even admit the comprehensible motive of cowardice. In The 
Tower beyond Tragedy, 8 Mr. Jeffers takes one of the very best 
of ready-made plots, the Orestes-Clytemnestra situation, the 
peculiar strength of which lies in the fact that Orestes is forced 
to choose between two crimes, the murder of his mother and the 
failure to avenge his father. But at the very last moment, in Mr. 
Jeffers' version, Orestes is converted to Mr. Jeffers' religion and 
goes off explaining to Electra (who has just tried to seduce him) 
that though men may think he is fleeing from the furies, he is 
really doing no more than drift up to the mountains to medi- 
tate on the stars. And the preceding action is, of course, rendered 

* In the volume called The Women at Point Sur, previously mentioned. 


Dear Judas is a kind of dilution of The Women at Point Stir, 
with Jesus as Barclay, and with a less detailed background. The 
Loving Shepherdess 9 deals with a girl who knows herself doomed 
to die at a certain time in child-birth, and who wanders over the 
countryside caring for a small and diminishing flock of sheep in 
an anguish of devotion. The events here also are anecdotal and 
reversible, and the feeling is lyrical or nothing. The heroine is 
turned cruelly from door to door, and the sheep fall one by one 
before the reader's eyes, the sheep and the doors constituting the 
matter of the narrative; until finally the girl dies in a ditch in an 
impossible effort to give birth to hei child. 


BY THE LOGICAL METHOD of composition, I mean simply explicitly 
rational progression from one detail to another: the poem has a 
clearly evident expository structure. Marvell's poem To His Coy 
Mistress, as Mr. T. S. Eliot has said, has something of the struc- 
ture of a syllogism, if the relationships only of the three para- 
graphs to each other be considered: 10 within each paragraph the 
structure is repetitive. The logical method is a late and sophisti- 
cated procedure that in Europe is most widespread in the six- 
teenth and seventeenth centuries, though it appears earlier and 
continues later. It was exploited, mastered, and frequently de- 
bauched by the English Metaphysical School, for example, 
though it was not invariably employed by them. 

Sometimes in the Metaphysical poets, frequently in the drama- 
tists contemporary with them, and far too often in the poetry of 
the twentieth century, the logical structure becomes a shell empty 
of logic but exploiting certain elusive types of feeling. The forms 
of pseudo-logic I shall reserve for treatment under another head- 

By stretching our category a trifle we may include under this 
heading poems implicitly rational, provided the implications of 
rationality are at all points clear. William Carlos Williams' poem, 

* In the volume entitled Dear Judas. 

10 Selected Essays, by T. S. Eliot. Harcourt, Brace and Co., New York: 1932. 


On the Road to the Contagious Hospital, may serve as an ex- 
ample. 11 On the other hand, Rimbaud's Larme, a poem which, 
like that of Dr. Williams, describes a landscape, is unf ormulable : 
it is an example of what Kenneth Burke has called qualitative 
progression, a type of procedure that I shall consider later. The 
poem by Williams, though its subject is simple, is a poem of 
directed meditation; the poem by Rimbaud is one of non-rational 
and hallucinatory terror. 


NARRATIVE ACHIEVES coherence largely through a feeling that 
the events of a sequence are necessary parts of a causative chain, 
or plausible interferences with a natural causative chain. In this 
it is similar to logic. The hero, being what he is and in a given 
situation, seems to act naturally or unnaturally; if his action 
seems natural, and is in addition reasonably interesting and, from 
an ethical point of view, important, the narrative is in the main 
successful.*. To this extent, Mr. Kenneth Burke is wrong, I be- 
lieve, in censuring nineteenth century fiction for its concern with 
what he calls the psychology of the hero as opposed to the con- 
cern with the psychology of the audience: 12 by the former, he 
means the plausibility of the portrait; by the latter the concern 
with those rhetorical devices which please and surprise the reader, 
devices, for example, of the type of which Fielding was a con- 
summate master. Mr. Burke overlooks the facts that rhetoric can- 
not exist without a subject matter, and that the subject matter of 
fiction is narration, that, in short, the author's most important in- 
strument for controlling the attitude of the audience is precisely 
the psychology of the hero. Mr. Burke is right, however, in that 
there are other, less important but necessary means of controll- 
ing the attitude of the audience, and that most of the standard fic- 
tion of the nineteenth century, sometimes for neglecting them, 
sometimes for utilizing them badly, suffers considerably. 

Mr. Burke, in his own compositions, with a precocious security 

11 Spring and All, bv William Carlos Williams. Contact Editions, Paris, The 
poem is quoted in full in the essay on Poetic Convention, in this book. 
u In the volume called Counterstatement, already mentioned. 


that is discouraging, reverses the Victorian formula: in his novel, 
Towards a Better Life, 13 he concentrates on the sentence, or 
occasionally on the paragraph, that is, on the incidental. He has 
attained what appears to be his chief end: he has made himself 
guotable. His book contains some good aphorisms and many bad; 
it contains some excellent interludes, such as the fable of the 
scholar with the face like a vegetable, or the paragraph on Vol- 
taire. Any of these felicities may be removed from their context 
with perfect impunity, for there really is no context: Towards a 
Better Life, as a whole, is duller than Thackeray. On the other 
hand, such writers as Jane Austen and Edith Wharton are likely 
to be wittier than Mr. Burke; but their wit, like that of Moli&re, 
is not often separable from their context, since it is primarily a 
context that they are creating. 

Short sketches in prose often deal with the revelation of a 
situation instead of with the development of one. The result is 
static, but if the prose is skillful and does not run to excessive 
length, it may be successful: Cunninghame Graham's At Dal- 
mary 14 is a fine example. Other things being equal, however 
(which, of course, they never are), action should lend power. In 
a short narrative poem it matters little whether the situation be 
revealed or developed: the force of the poetic language can raise 
the statement to great impressiveness either way; in fact, the 
process of revelation itself may take on in a short poem a quality 
profoundly dramatic. 15 The famous English Ballad, Edward, Mr. 
E. A. Robinson's Luke Havergal, Her Going 17 by Agnes Lee, 
are all examples of revelation at a high level of excellence. Mr. 
Robinson's Eros Turannos is a fine example of development 
within a short form. 

M Towards a Better Life, by Kenneth Burke. Harcourt, Brace and Co. : New 
York: 1932. 

14 Hope, by Cunninghame Graham. Duckeworth, London. 

15 It is curious that this procedure if employed in a long form, such as the 
novel or the play, tends to degenerate into bald melodrama; it is the essential, 
for example, of detective fiction. On the other hand, it is in a large part the 
form of The Ambassadors, the revelation in this, however, motivating further 

ie Collected Poems, by E. A. Robinson: Macmillan. 

17 Faces and Open Doors, by Agnes Lee. R. F. Seymour, Chicago, 1932. 


The coherence of character may be demonstrated, as in the 
novels of Henry James, in a closed, or dramatic plot, in which 
personage acts upon personage, and in which accident and me- 
chanical change play little part; or the personage may prove him- 
self coherent in a struggle with pure accident, as in Defoe, who 
pits Moll Flanders against the wilderness of London, or as in 
Melville, who pits Ahab against the complex wilderness of the 
sea, of brute nature, and of moral evil; or there may be, as in 
Mrs. Wharton, a merging of the two extremes: in Mrs. Wharton, 
the impersonal adversary is usually represented by a human being 
such as Undine Spragg or the elder Raycie, who is morally or 
intellectually undeveloped, so that the protagonist is unable to 
cope with him in human terms. The novel is not the drama, and 
to demand of it dramatic plot appears to me unreasonable. The 
form permits the treatment of a great deal of material impossible 
in the drama, and the material, since it is important in human 
life, ought to be treated. It is certain, however, that narrative re- 
quires coherence of character, and coherence necessitates change. 
Fielding is dull in bulk because his characters do not develop and 
because his incidents are without meaning except as anecdotal 
excuses for the exercise of style. Defoe's rhetoric is less agile, but 
his conception is more solid. 

In addition to having greater range, the novel of accident may 
have advantages over the dramatic novel which are perhaps too 
seldom considered. The author is less likely to be restricted to 
the exact contents of the minds of his characters, and so he may 
have greater opportunity to exhibit, directly or indirectly, his own 
attitudes, which, in most cases, may be more complex than the 
attitudes of his characters. Fielding, for example, would have been 
seriously embarrassed to treat Tom Jones from the point of view 
of Tom Jones. Melville accomplishes even more with his per- 
sonal freedom than does Fielding. The superstition that the au- 
thor should write wholly from within the minds of his characters 
appears to have grown up largely as a reaction to the degenera- 
tion of Fieldingese among the Victorians, notably Thackeray and 
Dickens, and perhaps Meredith, and perhaps in part as a result 
of the achievements in the newer mode by Flaubert and by Henry 


James. Flaubert is misleading, however, in that the perfection and 
subtlety of his style introduces an important element from with- 
out the consciousness of the character in a manner that may be 
overlooked; and James is misleading not only in this respect but 
because his characters are usually almost as highly developed as 
the author himself, so that the two are frequently all but indis- 
tinguishable. The superstition is reduced to absurdity in some of 
Mr. Hemingway's short stories about prize-fighters and bull- 
fighters, whose views of their own experience are about as valu- 
able as the views of the Sunbonnet Babies or of Little Black 

Theoretically, that fictional convention should be most desir- 
able which should allow the author to deal with a character from 
a position formally outside the mind of the character, and which 
should allow him to analyze, summarize, and arrange material, 
as author, and without regard to the way in which the character 
might be supposed to have perceived the material originally. 
This procedure should permit the greatest possibility of rhetori- 
cal range; should permit the direct play of the intelligence of 
the author, over and above the intelligence and limitations of the 
character; it should permit the greatest possible attention to what 
Mr. Kenneth Burke has called the psychology of the audience in 
so far as it is separable from what he calls the psychology of the 
hero: Mr. Burke, in fact, in his own novel, Towards a Better Life, 
employs a modified stream-of-consciousness convention, thus 
limiting the rhetorical range very narrowly, and confining him- 
self to a very narrow aspect of the psychology of the hero, so far 
as the construction of his work as a whole is concerned, and in a 
large measure as regards all relationships beyond those within the 
individual sentence. The convention which I should recommend 
is that of the first-rate biography or history (Johnson's Lives, for 
example, or Hume, or Macaulay) instead of the various post- 
Joycean conventions now prevalent. Exposition may be made an 
art; so may historical summary; in fact, the greatest prose in exist- 
ence is that of the greatest expository writers. The novel should 
not forego these sources of strength. If it be argued that the first 
aim of the novelist is to reach a public from whom the great ex- 


positors are isolated by their very virtues, then the novelist is in 
exactly that measure unworthy of serious discussion. My recom- 
mendation is not made wholly in the absence of examples, how- 
ever: allowances made for individual limitations of scope and de- 
fects of procedure, Jane Austen, Melville, Hawthorne, Henry 
James, Fielding, and Defoe may be called to serve; Edith Whar- 
ton at her best, in such performances as Bunner Sisters and False 
Dawn, as The Valley of Decision and The Age of Innocence, is 
nearly the perfect example. 


EVERY LINE or passage of good poetry, every good poetic phrase, 
communicates a certain quality of feeling as well as a certain 
paraphrasable content. It would be possible to write a poem un- 
impeachable as to rational sequence, yet wholly inconsecutive 
in feeling or even devoid of feeling. Meredith and Browning 
often display both defects. Chapman's Hero and Leander is a 
rational continuation of Marlowe's beginning, but the break in 
feeling is notorious. 

Suppose that we imagine the reversal of this formula, retain- 
ing in our language coherence of feeling, but as far as possible 
reducing rational coherence. The reduction may be accomplished 
in either of two ways: (1) we may retain the syntactic forms and 
much of the vocabulary of rational coherence, thus aiming to ex- 
ploit the feeling of rational coherence in its absence or at least 
in excess of its presence; or (2) we may abandon all pretence of 
rational coherence. The first of these methods I have called 
pseudo-reference and shall treat in this section. The second I 
shall reserve for the next section. 

Pseudo-reference takes a good many forms. I shall list as many 
forms as I have observed. My list will probably not be complete, 
but it will be nearly enough complete to illustrate the principle 
and to provide a basis of further observation. 

1. Grammatical coherence in excess of, or in the absence of, 
rational coherence. This may mean no more than a slight excess 

of grammatical machinery, a minor redundancy. Thus Miss 
Moore, in Black Earth: 

I do these 

things which I do, which please 
no one lout myself. 1 * 

The words which I have set in Roman are redundant. Again, in 
Reinforcements Miss Moore writes: 

the future of time is determined by 
the power of volition 

when she means: 

volition determines the future. 

Miss Moore is usually ironic when writing thus, but not always; 
and I confess that it appears to me a somewhat facile and diffuse 
kind of irony, for the instrument of irony (the poetry) is weak- 
ened in the interests of irony. It is an example of what I shall 
have repeated occasion to refer to as the fallacy of expressive, or 
imitative, form; the procedure in which the form succumbs to 
the raw material of the poem. It is as if Dryden had descended to 
imitating Shadwell's style in his efforts to turn it to ridicule. 

Closely related to this procedure, but much more audacious, is 
the maintenance of grammatical coherence when there is no co- 
herence of thought or very little. Hart Crane, for example, has 
placed at the beginning of his poem, For the Marriage of Faustus 
and Helen, 19 the following quotation from Ben Jonson's play, 
The Alchemist: 

And so we may arrive by Talmud skill 
And profane Greek to raise the building up 

18 Observations, by Marianne Moore. The Dial Press: N. Y. 1924. 
White Buildings, by Hart Crane. Boni and Liveright: 1926. 

4 1 

Of Helens house against the Ismaelite, 
King of Thogarma, and his habergeons 
Brimstony, blue and fiery; and the farce 
Of King Abaddon, and the beast of Cittim; 
Which Rabbi David Kimchi; Onkelos, 
And Aben Ezra do interpret Rome. 20 

This is one of the numerous passages in* the play, in which 
the characters speak nonsense purporting to contain deep alchem- 
ical secrets or to express a feignedly distraught state of mind: this 
particular passage serves both functions at once. The nonsense 
is necessary to Jonson's plot; the reader recognizes the necessity 
and can make no objection, so that he is forced to accept with un- 
alloyed pleasure whatever elusive but apparently real poetic im- 
plications there may be in such a passage, since he receives these 
implications absolutely gratis. The technique of expressive form, 
to which I have alluded, is here forced upon Jonson in a measure 
by the dramatic medium, for the characters must be represented 
in their oWft persons; this may or may not indicate a defect in the 
medium itself, as compared to other methods of satire, but at any 
rate there is no misuse of the medium. Jonson appears, then, to 
have been wholly aware of this procedure, which is usually re- 
garded as a Mallarmean or Rimbaldian innovation, and Crane 
appears to have found at least one of his chief models for this 
kind of writing in Jonson. Jonson differs from Crane in that he 
does not employ the method when writing in his own name, but 
merely employs it to characterize his cozeners. 

The two sections in blank verse of Faustus and Helen resemble 
Jonson's nonsense very closely. For example: 

The mind is brushed by sparrow wings; 
Numbers, rebuffed by asphalt, crowd 
The margins of the day, accent the curbs, 
Conveying divers dawns on every corner 
To druggist, barber, and tobacconist, 
Until the graduate opacities of evening 
90 Act IV: 3. Regarding this discussion, see Foreword on p. 153. 

Take them away as suddenly to somewhere 
Virginal, perhaps, less fragmentary, cool. 

This is perfectly grammatical, and if not examined too carefully 
may appear more or less comprehensible. But the activities of 
the numbers, if the entire sentence is surveyed, appear wholly 
obscure. If one suppose numbers to be a synonym for numbers of 
persons, for crowds, one or two points are cleared up, but no 
more. If one suppose the numbers to be the mathematical abstrac- 
tions of modern life, structural, temporal, financial, and others 
similar, there is greater clarity; but the first five lines are so pre- 
cious and indirect as to be somewhat obscure, and the last three 
lines are perfectly obscure. 

There is a pleasanter example of the same kind of writing in 
a shorter poem by Crane, and from the same volume, the poem 
called Sunday Morning Apples: 

A boy runs with a dog before the sun, straddling 
Spontaneities that form their independent orbits, 
Their own perennials of light 
In the valley where you live 

(called Brandy wine. ) 

The second line, taken in conjunction with the first, conveys the 
action of the boy, but it does so indirectly and by suggestion. 
What it says, if we consider rational content alone, is really inde- 
cipherable. One can, of course, make a rational paraphrase, but 
one can do it, not by seeking the rational content of the lines, 
but by seeking suggestions as to the boy's behavior, and by then 
making a rational statement regarding it. The line has a certain 
loveliness and conveys what it sets out to convey: the objection 
which I should make to it is that it goes through certain motions 
that are only half effective. A greater poet would have made the 
rational formula count rationally, at the same time that he was 
utilizing suggestion; he would thus have achieved a more con- 
centrated poetry. 

2. Transference of Values /row one field of experience to an- 


other and unrelated field. I shall illustrate this procedure with 
passages from Crane's poem, The Dance. 21 The poem opens with 
the description of a journey first by canoe down the Hudson, then 
on foot into the mountains. As the protagonist, or narrator, pro- 
ceeds on his way, he appears to proceed likewise into the past, 
until he arrives at the scene of an Indian dance, at which a chief- 
tain, Maquokeeta, is being burned at the stake. The poem from 
this point on deals with the death and apotheosis of Maquokeeta, 
the apotheosis taking the form of a union with Pocahontas, who 
has been introduced in this poem and in the poem preceding, 
The River, as a kind of mythic deity representing the American 
soil. The following passage is the climax and the most striking 
moment in the poem: 

O, like the lizard in the furious noon, 

That drops his legs and colors in the sun, 

And laughs, pure serpent, Time itself, and moon 

Of his own fate, I saw thy change loegunl 

And saw thee dive to kiss that destiny 
Like one white meteor, sacrosanct and blent 
At last with all that's consummate and free 
There where the first and last gods keep thy tent. 

The remainder of the poem develops the same theme and the 
same mood. The following phrases are typical : 

Thy freedom is her largesse, Prince . . . 
And are her perfect brows to thine? . . . 

The difficulty resides in the meaning of the union. It may be 
regarded in either of two ways: as the simple annihilation and 
dissolution in the soil of Maquokeeta, or as the entrance into 
another and superior mode of life. There is no possible com- 

If we select the former alternative, the language of mystical 
"From The Bridge, by Hart Crane. Horace Liveright, N. Y.: 1930. 

and physical union has no relationship to the event: it is lan- 
guage carried over, with all or a good deal of its connotation, from 
two entirely different realms of experience. The passage is thus 
parasitic for its effect upon feelings unrelated to its theme. The 
words consummate and free, for example, carry the connotations 
common to them, but their rational meaning in this context is 
terminated and dissipated. Sacrosanct, similarly, while carrying 
certain feelings from its religious past, would mean devoid of hu- 
man meaning, or, more concisely, devoid of meaning. Similarly, 
perfect, in the last line quoted, carries feelings from love poetry, 
but it would actually signify meaningless. In other words, extinc- 
tion is beatitude. But this is nonsense: extinction is extinction. If 
there is a state of beatitude, it is a state; that is, it is not extinction. 

If we accept the second alternative and assume that some really 
mystical experience is implied, there is nothing in the poem or 
elsewhere in Crane's work to give us a clue to the nature of the 
experience. The only possible conclusion is that he was confused 
as to his own feelings and did not bother to find out what he was 
really talking about. That odd bits of this obscurity can be glossed 
I am fully aware; but it cannot be cleaned up to an extent even 
moderately satisfactory. There is a wide margin of obscurity and 
of meaningless excitement, despite a certain splendor of language 
which may at times move one to forget, or to try to forget, what 
the poem lacks. 

Further, there seems actually little doubt that Crane did con- 
fuse in some way the ideas of extinction and of beatitude, and 
that he was an enthusiastic pantheistical mystic. The mere fact 
that beatitude is represented in this poem by the union with 
Pocahontas, who stands for the soil of America, is evidence in 
itself; and further evidence may be found in The River and in 
some of the shorter poems. But one does not create a religion and 
a conception of immortality simply by naming the soil Pocahontas 
and by then writing love poetry to the Indian girl who bore that 
name. Crane repeatedly refers to an idea which he cannot define 
and which probably never had even potential existence. 

A similar difficulty occurs in Atlantis, the final section of The 
Bridge, the sequence of which The Dance and The River are 


central parts. The Brooklyn Bridge is seen in a kind of vision or 
hallucination as the new Atlantis, the future America. The lan- 
guage is ecstatic; at certain moments and in certain ways it comes 
near to being the most brilliant language in Craned work: 

Like hails, farewells up planet-sequined heights 
Some trillion whispering hammers glimmer Tyre: 
Serenely, sharply up the long anvil cry 
Of inchling &ons silence rivets Troy . . . 

But the only poetic embodiment of the future, the only source of 
the ecstacy, is a quantitative vision of bigger cities with higher 
buildings. One can read a certain amount of allegory into this, 
but in so far as one makes the allegory definite or comprehensible, 
one will depart from the text; the enthusiasm again is obscure. 

3. Reference to a non-existent plot. This is most easily illus- 
trated by selections from T. S. Eliot. I quote from Gerontion: 2 ~ 

To he eaten, to be divided, to he drunk 
Among -whispers; by Mr. Silvero 
With caressing hands, at Limoges 
Who walked all night in the next room; 
By Hakagawa, bowing among the Titians; 
By Madame de Tornquist, in the dark room 
Shifting the candles; Fraulein von Kulp 
Who turned in the hall, one hand on the door. 

Each one of these persons is denoted in the performance of an 
act, and each act, save possibly that of Hakagawa, implies an 
anterior situation, is a link in a chain of action; even that of 
Hakagawa implies an anterior and unexplained personality. Yet 
we have no hint of the nature of the history implied. A feeling is 
claimed by the poet, the motivation, or meaning, of which is 
with-held, and of which in all likelihood he has no clearer notion 

* Poems 1 909- 1925, by T. S. Eliot. 

than his readers can have. I do not wish to seem to insist that Mr. 
Eliot should have recounted the past histories in order to perfect 
this particular poem. Given the convention, the modus operandi, 
the obscurity is inevitable, and compared to the obscurity which 
we have just seen in Crane, it is relatively innocent. But obscur- 
ity it is: discreetly modulated diffuseness. A more direct and 
economical convention seems to me preferable. 

Mr. Eliot does much the same thing, but less skillfully, else- 
where. The following passage is from Burhank with a Baedecker; 
Bleistein with a Cigar: 23 

Eurbank crossed, a little bridge, 

Descending at a small hotel; 
Princess Volupine arrived, 

They were together, and he fell. 

What is the significance of the facts in the first two lines? They 
have no real value as perception: the notation is too perfunctory. 
They must have some value as information, as such details might 
have value, for example, in a detective story, if they are to have 
any value at all. Yet they have no bearing on what follows; in 
fact, most of what follows is obscure in exactly the same way. 
They are not even necessary to what occurs in the next two lines, 
for Princess Volupine might just as well have encountered him 
anywhere else and after any other transit. 

4. Explicit Reference to a non-existent symbolic value. The 
following lines are taken from a poem entitled Museum, 24 by 
Mr. Alan Porter: 

The day was empty. Very pale with dust, 
A chalk road set its finger at the moors. 
The drab, damp air so blanketed the town 
Never an oak swung leather leaf. The chimneys 

38 Poems 1 909- J 925, by T. S. Eliot. 

** Signature of Pain, by Alan Porter. The John Day Company: New York: 


Pushed up their pillars at the loose-hung sky; 
And through the haze, along the ragstone houses, 
Red lichens dulled to a rotten-apple brown. 

Suddenly turning a byeway corner, a cripple, 
Bloodless with age, lumbered along the road. 
The motes of dust whirled at his iron-shod crutches 
And quickly settled. A dog whined. The old 
Cripple looked round, and, seeing no man, gave 
A quick, small piping chuclde, swung a pace, 
And stopped to look about and laugh again. 
"That," said a girl in a flat voice, "is God." 
Her mother made no answer; she remembered, 
"I knew an old lame beggar who went mad." 
He lumbered along the road and turned a corner. 
His tapping faded and the day was death. 

This poem is ably written and has an unusually fine texture; in 
fact, it is the texture of the entire work which provides the effec- 
tive setting for the factitious comment on the beggar, and the 
comment is introduced with great skill. The landscape is intense 
and mysterious, as if with meaning withheld. In such a setting, 
the likening of the beggar to God appears, for an instant, por- 
tentous, but only for an instant, for there is no discernible basis 
for the likening. The beggar is treated as if he were symbolic of 
something, whereas he is really symbolic of nothing that one can 
discover. The introduction of the beggar appears to be a very 
skillful piece of sleight-of-hand; yet it is not an incidental detail 
of the description, but is rather the climax of the description, the 
theme of the poem. We have, in other words, a rather fine poem 
about nothing. 

5. Implicit Reference to a non-existent symbolic value. It may 
be difficult at times to distinguish this type of pseudo-reference 
from the last or from the type which I have designated under the 

heading of transferred value. I shall merely endeavor to select 
examples as obvious as possible. 

There is, in the first place, such a thing as implicit reference to 
a genuine symbolic value. The second sonnet in Heredia's Tro- 
phdes, the sonnet entitled Nemee, describes the slaying of the 
Nemean lion by Hercules. Hercules is the typical hero; the slay- 
ing of the lion is the heroic task; the fleeing peasant is the com- 
mon mortal for whom the task is performed. It is nakedly and 
obviously allegorical, yet there is no statement within the poem 
of the allegorical intention: it is our familiarity with the myth 
and with other similar myths which makes us recognize the poem 
as allegory. Similarly, there is no statement of allegorical inten- 
tion within Blake's poem, The Tiger: the recognition of the in- 
tention is due to Blake's having been fairly explicit in other 

Further, it is possible to describe an item with no past history 
in such a way that it will have a significance fairly general. This 
is the procedure of a handful of the best poems of the Imagist 
movement; for example, of Dr. Williams' poem, On the road to 
the contagious hospital. Thus Miss Moore describes a parakeet, in 
the poem entitled My Apish Cousins: 

the parakeet, 
trivial and humdrum on examination, 

hark and portions of the food it could not eat. 

There is also the legitimate field of purely descriptive poetry, 
with no general significance and no claim to any. For examples, 
one could cite many passages from The Seasons, or from Crabbe. 
There is no attempt in such poetry to communicate any feeling 
save the author's interest in visible beauties. Such poetry can 
scarcely rise to the greatest heights, but within its field it is sound, 
and it can, as in some of Crabbe's descriptions, especially of the 
sea, achieve surprising power. There is a good deal of this sort of 
thing scattered through English literature. 


Growing out of these two types of poetry (that which refers to 
a genuine symbolic value, but implicitly, and the purely descrip- 
tive), there is a sentimental and more or less spurious variety, a 
good deal of which was recently fostered by the Imagist move- 
ment, but which actually antedates the Imagist movement by 
more than a century. 

This poetry describes landscape or other material, sometimes 
very ably, but assumes a quality or intensity of feeling of which 
the source is largely obscure. Thus in Collins' Ode to Evening we 
find a melancholy which at moments, as in the description of the 
bat, verges on disorder, and which at all times is far too profound 
to arise from an evening landscape alone. Collins' bat differs 
from Miss Moore's parakeet in this: that the parakeet is a gen- 
uine example of the way in which the exotic may become hum- 
drum with familiarity there is, in other words, a real perception 
of the bird involved, which does not exceed the order of experi- 
ence which the bird may reasonably represent; whereas Collins' 
bat is not mad nor a sufficient motive for madness, but is used to 
express a state of mind irrelevant to him. It is as if a man should 
murder his mother, and then, to express his feelings, write an 
Ode to Thunder. Or rather, it is as if a man should murder his 
mother with no consciousness of the act, but with all of the con- 
sequent suffering, and should then so express himself. A symbol 
is used to embody a feeling neither relevant to the symbol nor 
relevant to anything else of which the poet is conscious : the poet 
expresses his feeling as best he is able without understanding it. 
Collins in this poem, and in his odes to the disembodied passions, 
is perhaps the first purely romantic poet and one of the best. He 
does not, like Gray, retain amid his melancholy any of the classi- 
cal gift for generalization, and he has provided the language with 
no familiar quotations. Shelley's Ode to the West Wind, and in 
a measure Keats' Ode to the Nightingale, are examples of the 
same procedure; namely, of expressing a feeling, not as among 
the traditional poets in terms of its motive, but in terms of some- 
thing irrelevant or largely so, commonly landscape. No landscape, 
in itself, is an adequate motive for the feelings expressed in such 
poems as these; an appropriate landscape merely brings to mind 


certain feelings and is used as a symbol for their communication. 
The procedure can be defended on the grounds that the feeling 
may be universal and that the individual reader is at liberty to 
supply his own motive; but the procedure nevertheless does not 
make for so concentrated a poetry as the earlier method, and as 
an act of moral contemplation the poem is incomplete and may 
even be misleading and dangerous. 

H. D. employs a formula nearly identical with that of Collins 
in most of her poems. In describing a Greek landscape, she fre- 
quently writes as if it had some intrinsic virtue automatically 
evoked by a perception of its qualities as landscape but more im- 
portant than these qualities in themselves. It is not Greek history 
or civilization with which she is concerned, or most often it is 
not: the material is simple and more or less ideally bucolic. Fre- 
quently the ecstasy (the quality of feeling assumed is nearly 
identical in most of her poems) is evoked merely by rocks, sea, 
and islands. But it would not be evoked by any rock, sea, or 
islands: they must be Greek. But why must they be Greek? Be- 
cause of Athenian civilization? If so, why the to-do about material 
irrelevant to Athenian civilization? There is some wholly obscure 
attachment on the poet's part to anything Greek, regardless of its 
value: the mention of anything Greek is sufficient to release her 
very intense feeling. But since the relationship between the feel- 
ing and the Greek landscape has no comprehensible source and is 
very strong, one must call it sentimental. 

This is not to say that all her poetry is spoiled by it: much of 
it is spoiled and nearly all is tainted, but the taint is sometimes 
very slight; and the description, in addition, is sometimes very 
fine. Exotic landscapes of one kind or another have been em- 
ployed in exactly this fashion for about a century, and, in Amer- 
ica, the American landscape has been so employed by such 
writers as Whitman, Sandburg, Crane, and Williams. 

6. Explicit Reference to a non-existent or obscure principle of 
motivation. This may at times be hard to distinguish from almost 
any of the types of obscurity which I have described, but there 
are to be found occasionally passages of pseudo-reference which 
will fit into scarcely any other category. Bearing in mind the 

fundamental obscurity of The Dance, by Hart Crane, an obscu- 
rity which I have already discussed at some length, let us consider 
these two lines from it: 

Mythical brows we saw retiring loth, 
Disturbed, and destined, into denser green. 

This passage depends for its effect wholly upon the feeling of 

The mythical has rational content for the believer in myths or 
for him who can find an idea embodied in the myth. The major 
Greek divinities exist for us chiefly as allegorical embodiments of 
more or less Platonic ideas. What myths have we in mind here? 
None. Or none unless it be the myth of Pocahontas, which, as 
we have seen, is irreducible to any idea. There is merely a feeling 
of mythicalness. 

Loth, disturbed, destined are words of motivation; that is, each 
one implies a motive. But the nature of the motive is not given 
in the poem, nor is it deducible from the poem nor from the 
body of Crane's work. In fact, it is much easier to read some sort 
of general meaning into these lines in isolation than in their 
context, which has already been discussed. 

Such terms give, then, a feeling of reasonable motivation un- 
reasonably obscured. The poet speaks as if he had knowledge 
incommunicable to us, but of which he is able to communicate 
the resultant feelings. There is a feeling of mystery back of an 
emotion which the poet endeavors to render with precision. It is 
a skillful indulgence in irresponsibility. The skill is admirable, 
but not the irresponsibility. The poetry has a ghostly quality, as 
if it were only half there. 

7. Reference to a purely private symbolic value. A poet, some- 
times because of the limitations of his education, and sometimes 
for other reasons, may center his feelings in symbols shared with 
no one, or perhaps only with a small group. The private symbol 
may or may not refer to a clear concept or understanding. If it 
does so refer and the poetry is otherwise good, readers are likely 
eventually to familiarize themselves with the symbols; in fact 

brilliant writing alone will suffice to this end, as witness the 
efforts that have been made to clarify the essentially obscure 
concepts of Blake and of Yeats. A certain amount of this kind of 
thing, in fact, is probably inevitable in any poet, and sometimes, 
as in the references to private experience in the sonnets of Shake- 
speare, the obscurity, as a result of the accidents of history, can 
never be penetrated. 

I have illustrated one extreme type of pseudo-reference with a 
passage from Ben Jonson; I might have utilized also the "mad 
songs" of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, such as were 
written by Shakespeare, Fletcher, and Herrick. Samuel Johnson 
wrote thus in his Life of Dryden: "Dryden delighted to tread 
upon the brink of meaning, where light and darkness mingle. 
. . . This inclination sometimes produced nonsense, which he 
knew; and sometimes it issued in absurdity, of which perhaps he 
was not conscious." The method appears, then, to have been for a 
long time one of the recognized potentialities of poetic writing, 
but to have been more or less checked by the widespread com- 
mand of rational subject matter. 

It should naturally have been released, as it appears to have 
been, by a period of amateur mysticism, of inspiration for its 
own sake, by a tendency such as that which we have for some 
years past observed, to an increasingly great preoccupation with 
the fringe of consciousness, to an increasing emphasis on the 
concept of continuous experience, a tendency to identify, under 
the influence, perhaps, of scientific or of romantic monism, sub- 
conscious stimuli and reactions with occult inspiration, to con- 
fuse the divine and the visceral, and to employ in writing from 
such attitudes as this confusion might provide, a language previ- 
ously reserved to the religious mystics. Such a change would 
involve along its way such indefinable philosophies as Bergson- 
ism 25 and Transcendentalism, 26 such half-metaphorical sciences 

* Le Bergsonisme, by Julien Benda. Mercure de France: 1926. Also Flux 
and, Blur in Contemporary Art, by John Crowe Ransom in the Sewanee 
Review, July, 1929. 

"H. B. Parkes on Emerson, in the Hound and Horn, Summer, 1932; in- 
cluded in The Pragmatic Test, by H. B. Parkes, The Colt Press, San Francisco, 

as psychoanalysis, and especially the popular myths and supersti- 
tions which they and the more reputable sciences have engen- 
dered. In such an intellectual milieu, semi-automatic writing he- 
gins to appear a legitimate and even a superior method. 

Emerson, in Merlin, for example, gives this account of the 
bard's activity: 

He shall not his brain encumber 

With the coil of rhythm and number; 

But, leaving rule and pale forethought, 

He shall aye climb 

For his rhyme. 

"Pass in, pass in," the angels say, 

"In to the upper doors, 

Nor count compartments of the floors, 

But mount to paradise 

By the stairway of surprise." 

Just how much Emerson meant by this passage it would be hard 
to say; it is always hard to say just how much Emerson meant, 
and perhaps would have been hardest for Emerson. Mr. Tate 
reduces Emerson's Transcendentalism 27 to this formula: ". . . 
In Emerson, man is greater than any idea, and being the Over- 
Soul is potentially perfect; there is no struggle because I state 
the Emersonian doctrine, which is very slippery, in its extreme 
terms because there is no possibility of error. There is no drama 
in human character, because there is no tragic fault/' 

To continue with extreme terms which will give us, if not 
what Emerson desired, the results which his doctrine and others 
similar have encouraged we arrive at these conclusions: If there 
is no possibility of error, the revision of judgment is meaning- 
less; immediate inspiration is correct; but immediate inspiration 
amounts to the same thing as unrevised reactions to stimuli; un- 
revised reactions are mechanical; man in a state of perfection is 

27 New England Culture and Emily Dickinson, by Allen Tate : The Sym- 
posium, April, 1932. Reprinted in a somewhat revised form in Reactionary Es- 
says on Poetry and Ideas, by Allen Tate, Scribners, 1936. 


an automaton; an automatic man is insane. Hence, Emerson's 
perfect man is a madman. 

The important thing about all this is not Emerson's originality, 
but his complete lack of any: exactly the same conclusions are 
deducible from the Essay on Man, and the convictions which 
lead to them one meets everywhere in the eighteenth, nine- 
teenth, and twentieth centuries. 

Dr. W. C. Williams, for example, who, like Emerson, does not 
practice unreservedly what he preaches, but who more perhaps 
than any writer living encourages in his juniors a profound con- 
viction of their natural Tightness, a sentimental debauchery of 
self-indulgence, is able to write as follows: "It is the same thing 
you'll see in a brigand, a criminal of the grade of Gerald Chap- 
man, some of the major industrial leaders, old-fashioned kings, 
the Norsemen, drunkards and the best poets. . . . Poetry is im- 
posed on an age by men intent on something else, whose primary 
cleanliness of mind makes them automatically first-rate." 28 

A few months later Dr. Williams writes of and to his young 
admirers somewhat querulously: 29 'Instead of that Lord how 
serious it sounds let's play tiddly-winks with the syllables. . . . 
Experiment we must have, but it seems to me that a number of 
the younger writers has iorgotten that writing doesn't mean just 
inventing new ways to say 'So's your Old Man/ I swear I myself 
can't make out for the life of me what many of them are talking 
about, and I have a will to understand them that they will not 
find in many another." He demands substance, not realizing that 
his own teachings have done their very respectable bit toward 
cutting the young men off from any. 

The Emersonian and allied doctrines differ in their moral im- 
plications very little from any form of Quietism or even from the 
more respectable and Catholic forms of mysticism. If we add to 
the doctrine the belief in pantheism that is, the belief that the 
Over-Soul is the Universe, that body and soul are one we have 

* Blues (published by C. H. Ford, at Columbus, Miss.) for May, 1929. 

29 Blues for Autumn of 1930. The reference to the game of tiddly-winks will 
be clear only to those persons familiar with the imitators of Mr. James Joyce's 
fourth prose work, exclusive of Exiles, entitled Finnegans Wake. 


the basis for the more or less Freudian mysticism of the surreal- 
ists and such of their disciples as Eugene Jolas; we have also 
probably a rough notion of Hart Crane's mysticism. There is 
the danger for the Quietist that the promptings of the Devil or 
of the viscera may be mistaken for the promptings of God. The 
pantheistic mystic identifies God, Devil, and viscera as a point 
of doctrine: he is more interested in the promptings of the "sub- 
conscious" mind than of the conscious, in the half-grasped inten- 
tion, in the fleeting relationship, than in that which is wholly 
understood. He is interested in getting just as far off in the direc- 
tion of the uncontrolled, the meaningless, as he can possibly get 
and still have the pleasure of talking about it. He is frequently 
more interested in the psychology of sleeping than in the psy- 
chology of waking; 30 he would if he could devote himself to 
exploring that realm of experience which he shares with sea- 
anemones, cabbages, and onions, in preference to exploring the 
realm of experience shared specifically with men. 

So far as my own perceptions are able to guide me, it appears 
that the writers employing such methods are writing a little too 
much as Jonson's alchemists spoke, with a philosophical back- 
ground insusceptible of definition, despite their apparently care- 
ful references to it, but as their own dupes, not to dupe others. 
They have revised Baudelaire's dictum that the poet should be 
the hypnotist and somnambulist combined; he should now be the 
cozener and the cozened. Crane, despite his genius, and the same 
is true of Mr. James Joyce, appears to answer Ben Jonson's 
scoundrels across the centuries, and in their own language, but 
like a somnambulist under their control. 

This kind of writing is not a "new kind of poetry," as it has 
been called perennially since Verlaine discovered it in Rimbaud. 
It is the old kind of poetry with half the meaning removed. Its 
strangeness comes from its thinness. Indubitable genius has been 
expended upon poetry of this type, and much of the poetry so 
written will more than likely have a long life, and quite justly, 
but the nature of the poetry should be recognized: it can do us 

90 Cf. Mr. James Joyce's Finnegans Wake, and the voluminous works by 
Mr. Joyce's apologists and imitators. 


no good to be the dupes of men who do not understand them- 


THE TERM qualitative progression I am borrowing from Mr. 
Kenneth Burked volume of criticism, Counter statement, to which 
I have already had several occasions to refer. This method arises 
from the same attitudes as the last, and it resembles the last ex- 
cept that it makes no attempt whatever at a rational progression. 
Mr. Pound's Cantos 31 are the perfect example of the form; they 
make no unfulfilled claims to matter not in the poetry, or at any 
rate relatively few and slight claims. Mr. Pound proceeds from 
image to image wholly through the coherence of feeling: his sole 
principle of unity is mood, carefully established and varied. That 
is, each statement he makes is reasonable in itself, but the pro- 
gression from statement to statement is not reasonable: it is the 
progression either of random conversation or of revery. This kind 
of progression might be based upon an implicit rationality; in 
such a case the rationality of the progression becomes clearly 
evident before the poem has gone very far and is never there- 
after lost sight of; in a poem of any length such implicit rational- 
ity would have to be supported by explicit exposition. But in Mr. 
Pound's poem I can find few implicit themes of any great clarity, 
and fewer still that are explicit. 82 

81 A Draft of XXX Cantos, by Ezra Pound. Hours Press: 15 rue Guen^gaud: 
Paris: 1930. 

83 Mr. Pound, writing in The New English Weekly, Vol. Ill, No. 4, of re- 
marks similar to the above which I published in The Hound and Horn for the 
Spring of 1933, states: "I am convinced that one should not as a general rule 
reply to critics or defend works in process of being written. On the other hand, 
if one prints fragments of a work one perhaps owes the benevolent reader 
enough explanation to prevent his wasting time in unnecessary misunder- 

"The nadir of solemn and elaborate imbecility is reached by Mr. Winters in 
an American publication where he deplores my 'abandonment of logic in the 
Cantos,' presumably because he has never read my prose criticism and has never 
heard of the ideographic method, and thinks logic is limited to a few 'forms of 
logic' which better minds were already finding inadequate to the mental needs 
of the Xlllth century." 

As to the particular defects of scholarship which Mr. Pound attributes to 


The principle of selection being less definite, the selection of 
details is presumably less rigid, though many of the details dis- 
play a fine quality. The symbolic range is therefore reduced, since 
the form reduces the importance of selectiveness, or self-directed 
action. The movement is proportionately slow and wavering 
indeed is frequently shuffling and undistinguished and the 
range of material handled is limited: I do not mean that the 
poetry cannot refer to a great many types of actions and persons, 
but that it can find in them little variety of value it refers to 
them all in the same way, that is, casually. Mr. Pound resembles 
a village loafer who sees much and understands little. 

The following passage, however, the opening of the fourth 
Canto, illustrates this kind of poetry at its best: 

Palace in smoky light, 

Troy lout a heap of smouldering boundary stones, 

ANAX1FORMINGES! Aurunculeia! 

Hear me, Cadmus of Golden Prows! 

The silv&r mirrors catch the bright stones and flare, 

Dawn, to our waking, drifts in the cool green light; 

Dew-haze blurs, in the grass, pale ankles moving. 

Beat, beat, whirr, thud, in the soft turf under the apple-trees, 

Choros nympharum, goat-foot, with the pale foot alternate; 

Crescent of blue-shot waters, green-gold in the shallows, 

A black cock crows in the sea- foam; 

And by the curved, carved foot of the couch, claw-foot and 

lion-head, an old man seated 
Speaking in the low drone. . . . : 


Et ter ftebiliter, Ityn, Ityn! 
And she went toward the window and cast her down 

me, he is, alas, mistaken. For the rest, one may only say that civilization rests 
on the recognition that language possesses both connotative and denotative 
powers; that the abandonment or one in a poem impoverishes the poem to that 
extent; and that the abandonment of the denotative, or rational, in particular, 
and in a pure state, results in one's losing the only means available for check- 
ing up on the qualitative or "ideographic" sequences to see if they really are 
coherent in more than vague feeling. Mr. Pound, in other words, nas no way 
of knowing whether he can think or not. 


"And the while, the while swallows crying: 

"It is Cabestans heart in the dish." 
"It is Cabestans heart in the dish? 
"No other taste shall change this." 

The loveliness of such poetry appears to me indubitable, but it is 
merely a blur of revery: its tenuity becomes apparent if one 
compares it, for example, to the poetry of Paul Val6ry, which 
achieves effects of imagery, particularly of atmospheric imagery, 
quite as extraordinary, along with precision, depth of meaning, 
and the power that comes of close and inalterable organization, 
and, though Mr. Pound's admirers have given him a great name 
as a metrist, with incomparably finer effects of sound. 

Mr. Kenneth Burke defines the qualitative progression 33 by 
means of a very fine analysis of the preparation for the ghost in 
Hamlet and by reference to the porter scene in Macbeth, and 
then proceeds to the public house scene in The Waste Land 34 as 
if it were equally valid. Actually, the qualitative progression in 
Shakespeare is peripheral, the central movement of each play 
being dependent upon what Mr. Burke calls the psychology of 
the hero, or narrative logic, and so firmly dependent that occa- 
sional excursions into the rationally irrelevant can be managed 
with no loss of force, whereas in The Waste Land the qualitative 
progression is central: it is as if we should have a dislocated 
series of scenes from Hamlet without the prince himself, or with 
too slight an account of his history for his presence to be helpful. 
The difference between Mr. Eliot and Mr. Pound is this: that in 
The Waste Land, the prince is briefly introduced in the foot- 
notes, whereas it is to be doubted that Mr. Pound could jnanage 
such an introduction were he so inclined. And the allegorical 
interpretation, or the germ of one, which Mr. Eliot has provided 
helps very little in the organization of the poem itself. To guess 
that the rain has a certain allegorical meaning when the rain is 
so indifferently described, or to guess at the allegorical relation- 

33 Counterstatement: page 38 and thereafter. 
84 Poems 1909-25, by T. S. Eliot. 


ships as a scholar might guess at the connections between a dozen 
odd pages recovered from a lost folio, is of very small aid to our- 
selves or to the poet. 

If Mr. Eliot and Mr. Pound have employed conventions that 
can be likened to revery or to random conversation, Rimbaud 
and Mr. Joyce have gone farther. I quote Rimbaud's Larme: 

Loin des oiseaux, des troupeaux, des villageoises, 
Je buvais accroupi dans qu&lque bmy&re 
Entouree de tendres bois de noisetiers, 
Par un brouillard dapres-midi tiede et vert. 

Que pouvais-je boire dans cette jeune Oise, 
Ormeaux sans voix, gazon sans fleurs, del convert: 
Que tirais-je a la gourde de colocase? 
Quelque liqueur dor, fade et qui fait suer. 

Tel. j'eusse 6te mauvaise enseigne d'auberge. 
Puis Vorage changea le del jusqu au soir. 
Ce furent des pays noirs, des lacs, des perches, 
Des colonnades sous la nuit bleye, des gares. 

L'eau des bois se perdait sur les sables vierges. 
Le vent, du del, jetait des glagons aux mares . . . 
Or! tel quun pgcheur d'or ou de coquillages, 
Dire que je nai pas eu souci de boirel 

The feelings of this poem are perhaps those attendant upon 
dream, delirium, or insanity. The coming of night and the storm 
is an intensification of the mood; the protagonist is suddenly 
sucked deeper in the direction of complete unconsciousness, and 
the terror becomes more profound. 

In Finnegans Wake, by James Joyce, the dream convention is 
unmistakable. It penetrates the entire texture of the work, not 
only the syntax but the words themselves, which are broken 
down and recombined in surprising ways, 

This unbalance of the reasonable and the non-reasonable, 
whether the non-reason be of the type which I am now dis- 
cussing or of the pseudo-referent type, is a vice wherever it oc- 
curs, and in the experimental writers who have worked very far 
in this direction, it is, along with Laforguian irony, which I shall 
discuss separately, one of the two most significant vices of style 
now flourishing. The reasons have already been mentioned here 
and there, but I shall summarize them. 

Since only one aspect of language, the connotative, is being 
utilized, less can be said in a given number of words than if the 
denotative aspect were being fully utilized at the same time. The 
convention thus tends to diffuseness. Further, when the denota- 
tive power of language is impaired, the connotative becomes pro- 
portionately parasitic upon denotations in previous contexts, for 
words cannot have associations without meanings; and if the de- 
notative power of language could be wholly eliminated, the 
connotative would be eliminated at the same stroke, for it is the 
nature of associations that they are associated with something. 
This means that non-rational writing, far from requiring greater 
literary independence than the traditional modes, encourages a 
quality of writing that is relatively derivative and insecure. 

Since one of the means to coherence, or form, is impaired, form 
itself is enfeebled. In so far as form is enfeebled, precision of de- 
tail is enfeebled, for details receive precision from the structure 
in which they function just as they may be employed to give that 
structure precision; to say that detail is enfeebled is to say that 
the power of discrimination is enfeebled. Mr. Joyce's new prose 
has sensitivity, for Mr. Joyce is a man of genius, but it is the 
sensitivity of a plasmodium, in which every cell squirms inde- 
pendently though much like every other. This statement is a very 
slight exaggeration if certain chapters are considered, notably the 
chapter entitled Anna Livia Plurabelle, but for the greater part it 
is no exaggeration. 

The procedure leads to indiscriminateness at every turn. Mr. 
Joyce endeavors to express disintegration by breaking down his 
form, by experiencing disintegration before our very eyes, but 
this destroys much of his power of expression. Of course he con- 


trols the extent to which he impairs his form, but this merely 
means that he is willing to sacrifice just so much power of expres- 
sionin an effort to express something and no more. He is like 
Whitman trying to express a loose America by writing loose 
poetry. This fallacy, the fallacy of expressive, or imitative, form, 
recurs constantly in modern literature. 

Anna Livia Plurabelle is in a sense a modern equivalent of 
Gray's Elegy, one in which the form is expressive of the theme to 
an unfortunate extent; it blurs the values of all experience in the 
fact of change, and is unable, because of its inability to deal with 
rational experience, to distinguish between village Cromwells 
and the real article, between Othello on the one hand and on the 
other hand Shem and Shaun. It leads to the unlimited sub- 
division of feelings into sensory details till perception is lost, in- 
stead of to the summary and ordering of perception; it leads to 
disorganization and unintelligence. In Mr. Joyce we may observe 
the decay of genius. To the form of decay his genius lends a be- 
guiling iridescence, and to his genius the decay lends a quality 
of novelty/which endanger the literature of our time by render- 
ing decay attractive. 

Mr. T. S. Eliot, in his introduction to the Anabase of St. Jean 
Perse, 35 has written : 'There is a logic of the imagination as well 
as a logic of concepts. People who do not appreciate poetry al- 
ways find it difficult to distinguish between order and chaos in 
the arrangement of images." Later in the same essay he says: "I 
believe that this is a piece of writing of the same importance as 
the later work of Mr. James Joyce, as valuable as Anna Livia 
Plurabelle. And this is a high estimate indeed/' 

The logic in the arrangement of images of which Mr. Eliot 
speaks either is formulable, is not formulable, or is formulated. 
If it is neither formulated nor formulable (and he admits that it 
is not formulated), the word logic is used figuratively, to indicate 
qualitative progression, and the figure is one which it is hard to 
pardon a professed classicist for using at the present time. If the 
logic is formulable, there is no need for an apology and there is 

* Anabasis, a poem by St. Jean Perse, with translation and Preface by T. S. 
Eliot. Faber and Faber, London: 1930. 


no excuse for the reference to Anna Livia Plurabelle; and there is 
reason to wonder why no formulation is given or suggested by 
the critic. Mr. Eliot has reference obviously, merely to the type 
of graduated progression of feeling that we have been discussing, 
and the poem shares the weakness of other works already dis- 

Mr. Eliot's remarks are typical of the evasive dallying prac- 
ticed by the greater number of even the most lucid and reaction- 
ary critics of our time when dealing with a practical problem of 
criticism. It is well enough to defend Christian morality and to 
speak of tradition, but forms must be defined and recognized or 
the darkness remains. A classicist may admire the sensibilities of 
Joyce and Perse with perfect consistency (though beyond a cer- 
tain point not with perfect taste), but he cannot with consistency 
justify the forms which those sensibilities have taken. 

If the reader is curious to compare with the Anabase a prose 
work of comparable length and subject in the traditional man- 
ner, he will find a specimen of the highest merit in The Destruc- 
tion of Tenochtitlan 36 by William Carlos Williams, which, like 
the Anabase, deals with the military conquest of an exotic nation, 
but which utilizes not only qualitative progression but every 
other mode proper to narrative and in a masterly way. The form 
is exact; the rhetoric is varied and powerful; the details, unlike 
those of the Anabase, are exact both as description and, where 
symbolic force is intended, as symbols. Displaying fullness and 
precision of meaning, it is in no wise "strange" and has been 
ignored. But its heroic prose is superior to the prose of Anabase 
and of Anna Livia Plurabelle, is superior in all likelihood to 
nearly any other prose of our time and to most of the verse. 

The so-called stream-of-consciousness convention of the con- 
temporary novel is a form of qualitative progression. It may or 
may not be used to reveal a plot, but at best the revelation can be 
fragmentary since the convention excludes certain important 
functions of prose summary, whether narrative or expository, 

" In the American Grain, by W. C. Williams. A. and C. Boni, New York, 


being the chief. It approximates the manner of the chain of 
thought as it might be imagined in the mind of the protagonist: 
that is, it tends away from the reconsidered, the revised, and 
tends toward the fallacy of imitative form, which I have re- 
marked in the work of Joyce and of Whitman. 37 It emphasizes, 
wittingly or not, abject imitation at the expense of art; it is tech- 
nically naturalism; it emphasizes to the last degree the psy- 
chology of the hero, but the least interesting aspect of it, the ac- 
cidental. Mr. Kenneth Burke, in his novel, Toward a Better 
Life* 8 thus falls into the very pit which he has labored most 
diligently to avoid: he expends his entire rhetorical energy on his 
sentences, but lets his story run loosely through the mind of his 
hero. The quality of the detail is expository and aphoristic; the 
structure is not expository but is qualitative. One feels a discrep- 
ancy between the detail and the form; the detail appears labored, 
the form careless and confused. 

The convention of reminiscence, a form of the stream-of- 
consciousness technique, which is employed by. Mr. Burke and 
by others, fras a defect peculiar to itself alone. It commonly in- 
volves the assumption, at the beginning of a story, of the state 
of feeling proper to the conclusion; then by means of revelation, 
detail by detail, the feeling is justified. In other words, the initial 
situations are befogged by unexplained feeling, and the feeling 
does not develop in a clean relationship to the events. The result 
is usually a kind of diffuse lyricism. 


Two OR MORE METHODS may be used in formal arrangements. In 
a play or novel, where there is plenty of room for change, a great 

87 This law of literary aesthetics has never that I know been stated explicitly. 
It might be thus formulated: Form is expressive invariably of the state of mind 
of the author; a state of formlessness is legitimate subject matter for literature, 
and in- fact all subject matter, as such, is relatively formless; but the author must 
endeavor to give form, or meaning, to the formless in so far as he endeavors 
that his own state of mind may imitate or approximate the condition of the 
matter, he is surrendering to the matter instead of mastering it. Form, in so far 
as it endeavors to imitate the formless, destroys itself. 

88 Op. cit. 

6 4 

many modes of procedure may be employed. In a lyrical poem 
there will seldom be more than two. In Marvell's To His Coy 
Mistress, for example, the progression from stanza to stanza is 
logical, but within each stanza the progression is repetitive. 

Mallarm6's L'Apr&s-Midi d'un Faune illustrates a method to- 
ward which various writers have tended; namely to shift out of 
the logical into the pseudo-referent or qualitative, back into the 
logical, and so on, but at irregular intervals. The appearance of 
shifting may be due, of course, to my own inability to follow the 
argument, but it appears to be a real shifting. The faun recounts 
his adventure, trying to philosophize concerning it: hence narra- 
tive alternates with what should be exposition, but actually both 
narrative and exposition move in a more or less dreamy fashion 
at times, so that the cleavage in method does not coincide with 
the cleavage in subject matter. 


A SHORT POEM or passage may be composed of alternating pas- 
sages of two distinct and more or less opposed types of feeling, 
or of two types of feeling combined and without discernible 
alternation. A long poem may involve many types of feeling, but 
where two types alone are involved, one of them is usually 
ironic: it is with this situation in particular that I am here con- 
cerned. Byron, for example, commonly builds up a somewhat 
grandiloquent effect only to demolish it by ridicule or by ludi- 
crous anticlimax. His effects are crude in the main, the poems 
being ill-written, but he was the first poet to embody on a pre- 
tentious scale, and to popularize, this common modern attitude. 

The particular form which his method has taken in modern 
poetry is closely related to the poetry of Jules Laforgue, though 
Laforgue is not in every case an influence. I quote Laforgue's 
Complainte du Printemps: 

Permettez, 6 sir&ne, 
Void que votre haleine 
Embaume la verveine; 
C'est le printem'ps qui sam&nel 


Ce syst&me, en effet, ram&ne le printemps, 
Avec son impudent cortege d* excitants. 

Otez done ces mitaines; 
Et riayez, inhumaine, 
Que mes soughs your traine: 
Ousquil y a dela g&ne . . . 

Ahl yeux bleus meditant sur V ennui de leur art/ 
Et vous, jeunes divins, aux soirs crus de hasardl 

Du geant & la naine, 
Vois, tout loon sire entraine 
Quelque contemporaine, 
Prendre I' air, par hygiene . . . 

Mais vous saignez ainsi pour I 'amour de I'exil! 
Pour Vamour de I'Amourl D'ailleurs, ainsi soit-il . . . 

T'ai-je fait de la peine? 
Oh! viens vers les fontaines 
Ou tournent les phal&nes 
Des nuits Elysdennesl 

Pimb&che aux yeux vaincus, belldtre aux beaux jarrets, 
Donnez votre fumier a la fteur du Regret. 

Voila que son haleine 
N'embaum plus la verveine! 
Drdle de ph6nom&ne . . . 
Hein, d Vannee prochaine? 

Vierges d'hier, ce soir traineuses de foetus, 
A genouxl void I'heure ou se plaint l'Anglus. 

Nous n irons plus au bois, 
Les pins sont eternels, 

Les cors ant des appels! . . . 
Neiges des fdles mois, 
Vous serez mon missel! 
Jusquau jour du degel. 

The opposition and cancellation of the two moods is so obvious 
as to need no particular comment: there is romantic nostalgia 
(romantic because it has no discernible object, is a form of un- 
motivated feeling) canceled by an immature irony (immature 
because it depends upon the obviously but insignificantly ridicu- 
lous, as in the third quatrain, or upon a kind of physical detail 
which is likely to cause pain to the adolescent but which is not 
likely to interest the mature, as in couplets four and five). The 
application of the irony, in turn, deepens the nostalgia, as in the 
fourth quatrain and the conclusion. It is the formula for adoles- 
cent disillusionment: the unhappily "cynical" reaction to the loss 
of a feeling not worth having. 

A few years earlier than Laforgue, Tristan Corbi&re had em- 
ployed the same procedure in a few poems, most vigorously in 
Un Jeune Qui S'en Va, but from his greatest work (La Raysode 
Foraine and Cris d'Aveugle, two poems which are probably su- 
perior to any French verse of the nineteenth century save the 
best of Baudelaire), it is either absent or has lost itself amid an 
extremely complex cluster of feelings. 

Previously to Corbi&re, Gautier had written in much the same 
fashion, but usually of very different subjects. His Nostalgies des 
Obelisques are examples. They consist of two poems, mono- 
logues spoken by two Egyptian obelisks, one of which has been 
transported to Paris and compares the Parisian and Egyptian 
scenes, lamenting the loss of the latter, the other of which re- 
mains behind, only to make the same comparison but to long 
for Paris. The alternations are almost mathematically balanced, . 
though occasionally both moods will rest on a single image, as 
when an Egyptian animal performs a grotesquely ludicrous ac- 
tion in magnificent language. There is not, in Gautier, the ado- 
lescent mood of Laforgue, for Gautier was a vastly abler rhetori- 
cian and was too astute to give way to such a mood, but there is 

no meaning to his experience, as it appears in such poems, out- 
side of the contrast, and the contrast is painfully precise. Gautier 
resembles a child fascinated by the task of separating and arrang- 
ing exactly, blocks of exactly two colors. The moral sense of such 
a poet is too simple to hold the interest for many readings. Mr. 
Eliot in his quatrains employed the same formula; in fact several 
of his most striking lines are translated or imitated from Emaux 
et Camees?* 

Similar to Laforgue's use of this kind of irony is Mr. Pound's 
use of it in Hugh Selwyn Mauberly. 4Q The two attitudes at vari- 
ance in this sequence are a nostalgic longing of which the visible 
object is the society of the Pre-Raphaelites and of the related 
poets of the nineties, and a compensatory irony which admits the 
mediocrity of that society or which at least ridicules its mediocre 
aspects. Even in the midst of the most biting comment, the 
yearning is unabated: 

The Burne-Jones cartons 
Have preserved her eyes; 
Still, at the Tate, they teach 
C&phetua to rhapsodize; 

Thin, like brook-water, 

With a vacant gaze. 

The English Rubaiyat was still-born 

In those days. 41 

And again, to quote an entire poem: 

Among the pickled foetuses and bottled bones 

Engaged in perfecting the catalogue, 

I found the last scion of the 

Senatorial families of Strassbourg, Monsieur Verog. 

88 Poems 1909-25, by T. S. Eliot: the series of poems in octosyllabic quat- 
rains, of which the most successful is Sweeney among the Nightingales. 

"Hugh Selwyn Mavberly, by Ezra Pound. Included in Persons, by Ezra 
Pound. Boni and Liveright. New York. 1926. 

u Yewc Glauqes, from Mannerly. 


For two hours he talked of Gallifet; 
Of Dowson; Of the Rhymers' Club; 
Told me how Johnson (Lionel) died 
By falling from a high stool in a pub . . . 

But showed no trace of alcohol 

At the autopsy, privately performed 

Tissues preserved the pure mind 

Arose toward Newman as the whiskey warmed. 

Dowson found harlots cheaper than hotels; 

Headlam for uplift; Image impartially imbued 

With raptures for Bacchus, Terpsichore, and the Church 

So spoke the author of <( The Dorian Mood," 

M. Verog, out of step with the decade, 
Detached from his contemporaries, 
Neglected by the young, 
Because of these reveries. 42 

As so often happens when this kind of irony occurs, the poem is 
guilty of a certain amount both of doggerel and of verbosity. It 
is not without virtues, however; and it is not the best poem in 
the sequence. It is worth noting that the two moods are not pre- 
cisely separable here, as in so much of Eliot and of Gautier, but 
are usually coincident. This likewise is true of the irony of Wal- 
lace Stevens. 

Mr. Stevens' commonest method of ironic comment is to parody 
his own style, with respect to its slight affectation of elegance; or 
perhaps it were more accurate to say that this affectation itself is 
a parody, however slight, of the purity of his style in its best 
moments. The parody frequently involves an excess of allitera- 
tion, as in the opening lines of the poem entitled Of the Manner 
of Addressing Clouds: 43 

43 "Siena Mi Fe': Disfecemi Maremma." The same. 

"This poem and others by the same author may be found in: Harmonium, 
by Wallace Stevens, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1931. 

6 9 

Gloomy grammarians in golden gowns, 
Meekly you keep the mortal rendezvous. . . . 

The same device is more obviously employed in The Comedian 
as the Letter C, in which appears an explicit statement of the 
source of the irony, his inability to justify the practice of his art, 
his own lack of respect for what he is doing, and in which the 
irony frequently descends to the tawdry. In some poems he is 
entirely free of the quality, as, for examples, in Sunday Morning, 
Death of a Soldier, Of Heaven Considered as a Tomb. In such 
work, and in those poems such as that last quoted and, to choose 
a more ambitious example, Le Monocle de Mon Oncle, in which 
the admixture is very slight, he is probably the greatest poet of 
his generation. 

The double mood is not strictly post-romantic, either in Eng- 
lish or in French, nor is ironic poetry, but both are perhaps more 
frequently so, and in pre-romantic poetry neither is employed for 
the purpose which I have been describing. For instance, in Dry- 
den's MacFtecknoe, the combination of the heroic style and the 
satirical intention constitutes a kind of double mood, but there 
is no mutual cancellation; the same is true of Pope's Dunciad, of 
La Pucelle by Voltaire, and of a good many other poems. Church- 
ill's Dedication to Warburton, in its semblance of eulogy actu- 
ally covering a very bitter attack, employs both irony (as distinct 
from satire) and something that might be called a double mood. 
But in all of these examples, the poet is perfectly secure in his 
own feelings; he is attacking something or someone else from a 
point of view which he regards as tenable. The essence of roman- 
tic irony, on the other hand, is this: that the poet ridicules him- 
self for a kind or degree of feeling which he can neither approve 
nor control; so that the irony is simply the act of confessing a 
state of moral insecurity which the poet sees no way to improve. 44 

A twentieth century ironist who resembles the earlier ironists 
instead of her contemporaries is Miss Marianne Moore. If one 

"The relationship and partial indebtedness of this technical analysis of 
romantic irony to Irving Babbitt's more general treatment of the same subject 
in Rousseau and Romanticism will be evident to anyone familiar with the 


can trust the evidence of her earlier and shorter poems, she steins 
from the early Elizabethan epigrammatists. Turberville, a few 
years before Spenser and Sidney, writes To One of Little Wit: 

I thee advise 
If thou he wise 
To keep thy wit 
Though it be small. 
'Tis hard to get 
And far to fet 
'Twas ever yet 
Dearst ware of all. 

Miss Moore writes To an Intramural Rat: 45 

You make me think of many men 
Once met, to he forgot again, 

Or merely resurrected 
In a parenthesis of wit 
That found them hastening through it 

Too brisk to he inspected. 

In Miss Moore's later work, the same quality is developed 
through a very elaborate structure, in which the magnificent and 
the curious are combined with the ironical and the ludicrous: I 
have in mind in particular such poems as My Apish Cousins 
(later entitled The Monkey s), New York, A Grave, and Black 
Earth. These poems illustrate perfectly Miss Moore's virtues: un- 
shakable certainty of intention, a diction at once magnificent 
and ironic (her cat, for example, in My Apish Cousins, raises 
Gautier's formula for fantastic zoology into the realm of high 
art), and the fairly consistent control of an elaborate rhetoric. 
They suggest her weaknesses, which are more evident in other 
poems: a tendency to a rhetoric more complex than her matter, 
a tendency to be led astray by opportunities for description, and 
a tendency to base her security on a view of manners instead of 

48 Observations, by Marianne Moore, The Dial Press, New York, 1924. 

7 1 

The romantic antithesis of moods is the central theme of Joyce's 
Ulysses, which, at the same time, is rendered diffuse by a stream- 
of-consciousness technique and by the fallacy of imitative form. 46 
The book has great virtues, which its admirers have long since 
fully enumerated, but it lacks final precision both of form and of 
feeling. It is adolescent as Laforgue is adolescent; it is ironic about 
feelings which are not worth the irony. 

Mr. Kenneth Burke's novel, Towards a Better Life, displays 
the same kind of irony, which adds to the confusion coming from 
other sources which I have already mentioned. Mr. Burke, in- 
stead of giving us the progression of a narrative, endeavors, as I 
have said, to give us a progression of pure feeling. Frequently 
there is not even progression; we have merely a repetitious series 
of Laforguian antitheses. 

Mr. Burke, in his volume of criticism, Counter statement, offers 
the best defense with which I am familiar, of the attitudes to 
which I am now objecting. 47 He writes: "The ironist is essentially 
impure, even in the chemical sense of purity, since he is divided. 
He must deprecate his own enthusiasms, and distrust his own re- 
sentments. He will unite waveringly, as the components of his 
attitude, 'dignity, repugnance, the problematical, and art/ To the 
slogan-minded, the ralliers about a flag, the marchers who con- 
vert a simple idea into a simple action, he is an 'outsider/ Yet he 
must observe them with nostalgia, he must feel a kind of awe for 
their fertile assurance, even while remaining on the alert to stifle 
it with irony each time he discovers it growing in unsuspected 
quarters within himself/' 

In admitting no distinction save that between the ironist and 
the slogan-minded, Mr. Burke himself verges upon a dangerous 
enthusiasm, perhaps even upon a slogan. The whole issue comes 
down to the question of how carefully one is willing to scrutinize 
his feelings and correct them. Miss Rowena Lockett once re- 
marked to me that Laforgue resembles a person who speaks with 
undue harshness and then apologizes; whereas he should have 
made the necessary subtractions before speaking. The objection 

46 Ulysses, by James Joyce, Shakespeare and Co., Paris. 

47 In the essay on Thomas Mann and Andrd Gide, pages 116 and following. 


implies an attitude more sceptical and cautious than that of Mr. 
Burke; instead of irony as the remedy for the unsatisfactory feel- 
ing, it recommends the waste-basket and a new beginning. And 
this recommendation has its basis not only in morality but in 
aesthetics: the romantic ironists whom I have cited write imper- 
fectly in proportion to their irony; their attitude, which is a cor- 
ruption of feeling, entails a corruption of style that is, the irony 
is an admission of careless feeling, which is to say careless writ- 
ing, and the stylist is weak in proportion to the grounds for his 
irony. To see this, one has only to compare the best work of these 
writers to the best of Churchill, Pope, Gay, Marot, or Voltaire. 
Mr. Burke states elsewhere: 48 "The 'sum total of art' relieves 
the artist of the need of seeing life steadily and seeing it whole. 
He will presumably desire to be as comprehensive as he can, but 
what he lacks in adjustability can be supplied by another artist 
affirming some other pattern with equal conviction/' 

Except for the likelihood that two opposite excesses may not be 
equivalent to something intelligent, Mr. Burke's statement may 
up to a certain point be well enough for Society (whatever the 
word may mean in this connection), but from the standpoint of 
the individual seeking to train himself, it is not very helpful. 

Mr. Burke does give the artist a morality, however: he bases it 
upon what he believes Society needs: "Alignment of forces. On 
the side of the practical: efficiency, prosperity, material acquisi- 
tions, increased consumption, 'new needs/ expansion, higher 
standards of living, progressive rather than regressive evolutions, 
in short ubiquitous optimism. . . . On the side of the aesthetic 
(the Bohemian): inefficiency, indolence, dissipation, vacillation, 
mockery, distrust, 'hypochondria/ non-conformity, bad sports- 
manship, in short, negativism. We have here a summary of the 
basic notion of all of Mr. Burke's writings, the doctrine of bal- 
anced excesses. Perhaps they will balance each other, and perhaps 
not, but suppose a man should desire to be intelligent with regard 
to himself alone; suppose, in other words, a particular artist 
should lack entirely the high altruism which Mr. Burke demands 
of him of what value will he find Mr. Burke's morality? Mr. 

18 Counterstatement: the chapter called Lexicon Rhetoricae: page 231. 


Burke's doctrine, in the realms of art and of morality, is really the 
least sceptical, the most self-confident possible: no point of view is 
tenable and hence no feeling is adequately motivated; all feeling 
is thus seen to be excessive, and neither more nor less excessive 
than any other, for there is no standard of measurement; any 
excess can be canceled by an opposite excess, which is automati- 
cally equal, and careful evaluation, as it is impossible, is likewise 

I have stated the matter very baldly, but quite fairly. Any artist 
holding Mr. Burke's views, in so far as he is an artist, will be re- 
strained more or less by his natural feeling for Tightness of ex- 
pression; but as the theory does not, if pushed to its conclusions, 
admit the existence of Tightness, the theory encourages shoddy 
writing and shoddy living. The hero of Mr. Burke's novel goes 
mad, for the reason that, the need of judgment having been re- 
moved by his (and Mr. Burke's) theories, the power of judgment 
atrophies; yet Mr. Burke continues to preach the doctrine which 
brought him to this end. 

The perfect embodiment of Mr. Burke's doctrines, whether as 
an individual man, or as an allegorical representation of Society, 
is that Shan O'Neale who flourished in Ireland in the sixteenth 
century, and whose character David Hume has described as fol- 
lows in his History of England: "He was a man equally noted for 
his pride, his violence, his debaucheries, and his hatred of the 
English nation. He is said to have put some of his followers to 
death because they endeavored to introduce the use of bread 
after the English fashion. Though so violent an enemy to luxury, 
he was extremely addicted to riot; and was accustomed, after his 
intemperance had thrown him into a fever, to plunge his body 
into the mire, that he might allay the flame which he had raised 
by former excesses." 



I SHALL ENDEAVOR to define a concept which is fundamental to 
any discussion of poetry, and shall employ to indicate the concept 
the terms convention and conventional. In popular speech, these 
terms are frequently synonymous with banality and banal; in 
discussions of literary technique, the term convention frequently 
signifies a fixed and generally accepted device for the simplified 
representation of some particular kind of truth, as: the pastoral 
convention, the convention of the dramatic unities, the conven- 
tion of the dramatic chorus. The sense in which I shall use the 
term is not unrelated to these, but it is none the less distinct from 
them. It is a sense which is perhaps more difficult to grasp, which 
also is frequently vaguely implicit in the use of the word for both 
of the above meanings. 

It should be remembered in connection with this and other 
definitions that a critical term ordinarily indicates a quality, and 
not an objectively demonstrable entity, yet that every term in 
criticism is an abstraction, that is, in a sense, is statistical or quan- 
titative in its own nature. This means that no critical term can 
possibly be more than a very general indication of the nature of 
a perception. Philosophy labors under the same difficulty, since 
all generalization is made from perception, or from experience 
inextricably involved in perception. There is nothing revolution- 
ary about such a statement, but it needs to be kept in mind. 
Much of the Socratic hair-splitting of some of the more recent 
critics arises from a failure to observe in particular instances that 
any critical definition is merely an indication of a unique experi- 
ence which cannot be exactly represented by any formula, though 


it may be roughly mapped out; and it is frequently of greater 
importance to discover something of the nature of the experience 
than to reduce the more or less expert formula to something 
simpler and still less veracious and then to demolish it. 

When one speaks of standards of critical judgment, one does 
not ordinarily think of weights and measures. One has in mind 
certain feelings of Tightness and completeness, which have been 
formed in some measure, refined in a large measure, through a 
study of the masters. The terms that one will use as a critic will 
stand for those feelings. Definitions of such terms can never be 
exact beyond misconstruction, but by dint of careful description 
and the use of good examples, one may succeed in communicat- 
ing standards with reasonable accuracy to those, at least, to 
whom it is important that communication should be made. For 
if values cannot be measured, they can be judged; and the bare 
existence of both art and criticism shows the persistence of the 
conviction that accuracy of judgment is at least ideally possible, 
and that the best critics, despite the inevitable margin of differ- 
ence, and 'despite their inevitable duller moments, approximate 
accuracy fairly closely: by that, I mean that great men tend to 
agree with each other, and the fact is worth taking seriously. I 
am more or less aware of the extent of the catalogue of disagree- 
ments that might be drawn up in reply to such a statement, but 
it is far less astounding than, let us say, the unanimity of the best 
minds on the subject of Homer and Vergil, particularly if we 
accept the doctrine of relativism with any great seriousness. 

The two paragraphs foregoing are not to be regarded as a plea 
for intellectual amateurism or for any kind of impressionism. 
Definition should be as exact as possible, as professional as possi- 
ble. It is through the definition of others that we learn of realms 
of perception that we have overlooked, and are brought to a posi- 
tion in which we may attempt judgment and perhaps arrive at 
approbation. But there are limits to language, and the failure to 
remember this fact, even though one may grant it readily as a 
formal proposition, can lead to nothing save incomprehension on 
the part of a reader and obscurantism on the part of a writer. 

Keeping these warnings in mind, the reader is now requested 

to examine carefully the two poems following. The first is en- 
titled Eros 1 and is by Robert Bridges; the second 2 has no title, 
and is by William Carlos Williams. 

Why hast thou nothing in thy face? 
Thou idol of the human race, 
Thou tyrant of the human heart. 
The flower of lovely youth that art; 
Yea, and that standest in thy youth 
An image of eternal truth, 
With thy exuberant flesh so fair, 
That only Pheidias might compare, 
Ere from his chaste marmoreal form 
Time had decayed the colors warm; 
Like to his gods in thy proud dress 
Thy starry sheen of nakedness. 

Surely thy body is thy mind, 
For in thy face is nought to find, 
Only thy soft unchristened smile, 
That shadows neither love nor guile, 
But shameless will and power immense, 
In secret sensuous innocence. 

king of joy, what is thy thought? 

1 dream thou knowest it is nought. 

And wouldst in darkness come, hut thou 
Makest the light where'er thou go. 
Ah, yet no victim of thy grace, 
None who ere longed for thy embrace, 
Hath cared to look upon thy face. 

1 Shorter Poems, by Robert Bridges. Oxford Press, 1931. 
8 Spring and All, by William Carlos Williams, Contact Publishing Company, 
Paris, 1923. 


By the road to the contagious hospital 

under the surge of the blue 

mottled clouds driven from the 

northeast a cold wind. Beyond, the 

waste of broad muddy fields 

brown with dried weeds, standing and fallen 

patches of standing water 
the scattering of tall trees 

All along the road the reddish 
purplish, forked, upstanding, twiggy 
stuff of bushes and small trees 
with dead, brown leaves under them 
leafless vines- 
Lifeless in appearance, sluggish 
dazed spring approaches 

They enter the new world naked, 
cold, uncertain of all 
save that they enter. All about them 
the cold familiar wind- 
Now the grass, tomorrow 
the stiff curl of wildcarrot leaf 

One by one objects are defined 
It quickens: clarity, outline of leaf 

But now the stark dignity of 
entrance Still, the profound change 
has come upon them: rooted they 
grip down and begin to awaken. 

A scutiny of these poems will show that most of the poetic 
power is concentrated in less than half the number of the lines; in 

the first poem, the greatest power is reached in the middle para- 
graph, and in the second poem it is reached in the eight lines 
beginning Lifeless in appearance. The remaining lines in each 
poem vary in power; the chief virtue of many of the lines in each 
poem may seem at first glance to reside in the plain conveyance 
of necessary information. 

And yet the first glance, if it has led to this conclusion, is 
illusory. The passages of the greatest power lose much of their 
power in isolation : therefore one is justified in saying that some- 
thing essentially poetic suffuses the entire structure. 

This "something" I shall name the convention of the poem: I 
shall use the term convention to indicate the initial assumption 
of feeling, or value, to which the poem is laying claim. It is not 
equivalent to the term style, though style is necessary to the 
establishment and maintenance of convention. Again, convention 
is distinct from any set of technical devices, though technical 
devices will be employed in the establishment of any convention. 
The convention of a poem is not, finally, a part or ingredient of a 
poem, for a poem is a unit, and the dissection of it is artificial, 
though frequently valuable if one recognize the nature of the 
process. Convention is an aspect of poetry that can best be ex- 
plained by illustration. 

Consider the opening lines of the poem by Williams. The 
nervous meter, words like "surge," "mottled," "driven," suggest 
an intensity of feeling not justified by the actual perceptions in 
the lines. These words are therefore conventional. The content 
of the passage is factual to a greater degree than it is perceptual, 
and in itself has extremely little interest. In thus describing the 
lines, I employ the terms perception and perceptual solely with 
reference to the awareness of the author of fine relationships be- 
tween facts observed (or perceived directly) and language, or the 
medium of judgment and communication. More feeling is as- 
sumed, or claimed, by the poet, in a passage such as that under 
discussion, than is justified by his language: he claims more than 
he is able to communicate, or more, perhaps, than he chooses to 
communicate. At first glance a passage of this sort appears a trifle 
strained, to use a common but somewhat vague epithet. But in 


the present poem, the strain is deliberately sought and exactly 
rendered. The tempo established in these lines, the whole quality 
of the feeling, the information conveyed, are all necessary to, in 
fact are a part of, the effect of the eight central lines. With the 
line beginning 'lifeless in appearance" the intensity claimed by 
the opening is at once justified and increased by the quality of 
the perception : the initial assumption prepares one for the exact 
increase which occurs, and the preparation is necessary. The feel- 
ing of the last two of the eight central lines (Now the grass, etc,) 
differs widely from the feeling in the preceding six, but is de- 
pendent largely upon the feeling already established in the pre- 
ceding six for its existence. The feeling is one of pathos, aroused 
by the small and familiar in austere and unfriendly surroundings. 
It is related to the feeling of Animula Vagula. The last six lines 
of Williams' poem revert to the conventional level, but carry with 
them, if read in their context, an echo of the precedent intensity. 

My analysis of the poem has been oversimplified for the sake 
of momentary convenience. The conventional passages are not 
devoid of perceptual value: the skill with which the details of the 
landscape are placed in juxtaposition in the opening lines is in 
itself an act of perception. The beat, also, in lines nine, ten, and 
eleven, taken in conjunction with the material described, has 
perceptual value, and one could point out other details. The de- 
tails are not of a uniform level of intensity: no two details can 
be so. The important thing for the moment is that the intensity 
claimed by the passage is on the whole in excess of the justifica- 
tion within the passage, and that the intensity assumed is indi- 
cated with the greatest of firmness, with the result that departures 
from it can be made with equal firmness. 

For example, I have said that the beat in lines nine, ten, and 
eleven has perceptual value, as indicating the "twiggy" appear- 
ance of the landscape. Yet the meaning-content (as distinct from 
the sound-content) of every adjective contributing to this percep- 
tion is a little vague: "reddish," "purplish," for instance, are by 
definition uncertain in their import. But the vagueness is willed 
and controlled: one has a definite measure of vagueness set 
against the definite intensity of the meter. To make these percep- 


tions more precise would lessen the impact of the central lines. 
This mastery of emphases and of the conventional is one of the 
marks, and probably the most important mark, of the great styl- 
ist: without this mastery poetry degenerates into slipshod senti- 
ment at worst, and at best, as in much of Crane, into brilliant, but 
disconnected, epithets and ejaculations. 

Conventional language, then, is not in itself stereotyped lan- 
guage, though a strongly defined convention may safely carry a 
little stereotyped language: in fact stereotyped language may 
often be used deliberately to establish a convention. Conventional 
language is not dead language, but rather is very subtly living, if 
well employed. In so far as any passage is purely conventional, 
that is, conventional as distinct from perceptual, it does not repre- 
sent a perception of its own content, the feeling it assumes is not 
justified within the passage in question. When I speak of conven- 
tional language, I shall mean language in which the perceptual 
content is slight or negligible. A conventional passage, the adjec- 
tive conventional being employed in this sense, is poetic, however, 
in so far as it is essential to the entire poetic intention, that is, in 
so far as its effects reach forward or backward within the poem. 

Let me resume my definitions briefly, that I may add a little 
more before proceeding. Poetic convention is the initial, or basic, 
assumption of feeling in any poem, from which all departures 
acquire their significance. The convention of a poem is present, 
or at least discernible as the norm of feeling, throughout the en- 
tire poem, so that in a sense all the language of a poem is con- 
ventional; but when I use the term conventional language I shall 
commonly be speaking of passages in which the perceptual justi- 
fication of the feeling is slight. I shall likewise use the term con- 
ventional in a generic sense, to indicate a type of convention, as: 
the Laforguian convention, the pseudo-referent convention. The 
context will ordinarily render my intention perfectly clear. 

But I am concerned for the moment with the subject of par- 
ticular convention, primarily. The conventional intensity in the 
poem by Williams was somewhat in excess of the perceptual value 
of many lines in the poem; it would, as I said, appear slightly 
strained to many readers. This feeling of strain is not necessarily 


concomitant with convention; in the poem by Bridges there is no 
such strain. The movement of Bridges 1 poem is quiet; the lan- 
guage, like that of Williams, is plain, but it verges more nearly 
on the stereotyped than does the language of Williams in the 
poem quoted. The intensity assumed is at a more familiar level of 
initial assumption and so appears never to be in excess of the 
least important fact conveyed: that is, the convention is nearer 
to the matter-of-fact tone of prose than is the convention em- 
ployed by Williams. Strangely enough, a convention of such a 
type can serve, as on this occasion, with perfect effectiveness in 
a poem of the most powerful feeling. 

I shall now give a brief account of a few general terms deduci- 
ble from these ideas regarding convention : 

I. Traditional poetry is poetry which endeavors to utilize the 
greatest possible amount of the knowledge and wisdom, both 
technical and moral, but technical only in so far as it does not 
obstruct the moral, to be found in precedent poetry. It assumes 
the ideal Existence of a normal quality of feeling, a normal con- 
vention, to which the convention of any particular poem should 
more or less conform. Actually, the conformity of any poem, 
even though the traditional norm could be exactly defined or 
could be found embodied in a single work (Lady Winchilsea's 
flawlessly beautiful and eminently traditional poems The Tree 
or The Change, or George Herbert's Church Monuments*) , 
would be impossible, since every poem, good or bad, is unique. 
But if we cannot lay a finger precisely upon the norm, we can 
recognize the more or less normal. If the reader does not follow 
me, let me point out that it is easy to recognize the Laforguian 
convention in Apollinaire, in the early Eliot, and in Pound's 
Mauberly, or the Miltonic convention, even though indifferently 
managed, in Thomson and in Wordsworth. The traditional 
norm is less obviously discernible, for it embraces a wider variety 
of essential qualities, and no one of them receives so marked an 
emphasis. One might describe it negatively as that type of poetry 
which displays at one and the same time the greatest possible dis- 
tinction with the fewest possible characteristics recognizable as 

the marks of any particular school, period, or man; as, in brief, 
that type of poetry which displays the greatest polish of style and 
the smallest trace of mannerism. One may describe traditional 
poetry positively by saying that it possesses these closely related 
qualities: (1) equivalence of motivation and feeling; (2) a form 
that permits a wide range of feeling; (3) a conventional norm of 
feeling which makes for a minimum of "strain"; (4) a form and 
a convention which permit the extraction from every unit of lan- 
guage of its maximum content, both of connotation and of deno- 
tation; that is, a form and a convention which are in the highest 
degree economical, or efficient. 

II. Experimental poetry endeavors to widen the racial experi- 
ence, or to alter it, or to get away from it, by establishing abnor- 
mal conventions. In one sense or another Spenser, Donne, Mil- 
ton, Hopkins, Laforgue, and Rimbaud are experimental poets of 
a very marked kind. The most striking example in English of a 
convention of heightened intensity (that is, of what the unsym- 
pathetic might call poetic strain) is to be found in Paradise Lost. 
When the poem does not achieve grandeur, it is grandiloquent; 
yet the quality of the grandiloquence could have been achieved 
only by a master of the highest order, and without it the poem 
could hardly have been accomplished. As an act of invention, of 
daring experiment, the creation of Miltonic blank verse, both 
meter and rhetoric, is not equaled in English poetry; in fact one 
is tempted to wonder if it is equaled in any other. The perils 
amid which Milton ventured and which he avoided with perfect 
equanimity are best estimated by a consideration of his disciples. 
Yet in spite of his mastery, the emphatic and violent rhetoric 
which he created limits his range, as compared to the range of 
Shakespeare, a man of comparable genius but working in a series 
of conventions which are relatively traditional. The same rela- 
tionship holds between the sonnets of the two men, and is the 
more readily discernible, perhaps, because of the smaller form. 
Milton is the more complex rhetorician, but the simpler moralist 
and a man of far less subtle perception. Milton is the nobler, but 
Milton's nobility is in part, and as compared to Shakespeare, the 
over-emphasis of imperception. 


An experimental poet may be traditional in many aspects. 
Thus Crashaw, who carries certain experimental qualities of dic- 
tion and image found in Donne much farther from the norm 
than even Donne ventured, is nevertheless traditional in that he 
utilizes by means of discreet suggestion the more emphatic and 
experimental metrical forms of the sixteenth century to suggest 
complexities of feeling not possible in those metrical forms as the 
poets of the sixteenth century used them. He suggests the song- 
books in his devotional poetry, as he therein utilizes the common 
imagery of the Petrarchan love lyric. Dr. W. C. Williams, an 
experimental poet by virtue of his meter, is in other qualities of 
his language one of the most richly traditional poets of the past 
hundred and fifty years; in fact, making allowances for his some- 
what narrow intellectual scope, one would be tempted to com- 
pare him, in this respect, to such poets as Hardy and Bridges. No 
two experimental conventions will have similar poetic results; 
one cannot predicate a great deal that is important of experimen- 
tal poetry in general; but, as one might suspect, some Forms of 
experimental poetry have had dire results, and of individual 
types of convention one can frequently say a great deal. 

III. Pseudo-traditional or "literary" poetry is the work of 
writers insufficiently aware of what they have stylistically and 
morally in common with the best poetry of the race to master this 
common element (I am referring, of course, to a common dis- 
tinction, skill, and moral intelligence, that which one may find 
in Campion, Jonson, and Herrick) and in a manner of speaking 
to take it for granted. The literary poet, cut off from his tradi- 
tion by education, for he usually occurs in the late eighteenth, 
the nineteenth, or the twentieth century, regards the tradition as 
something exotic, and employs it accordingly. He imitates the 
idioms of the traditional poet, but they are no longer for him fa- 
miliar and exact; they are foreign and decorative; they degener- 
ate into mannerism. He comes to regard certain words, phrases, 
or rhythms, as intrinsically poetic, rather than as instruments of 
perception or as the clues to generative ideas. His imitation is 
thus crude, as we can see by comparing the pseudo-Elizabethan 

meters of Beddoes to the meters of Campion, the meters of Chat- 
terton to the meters of the best lyrics of the thirteenth century, 
the meters of Swinburne to the meters of Sidney, from which 
they are frequently derived. 

When, as in the traditional poet, the wisdom and expression 
of the past are both a basic part of the individual, when they are 
at once taken casually for granted and thoroughly understood, 
the individual contribution to the poem can be made with force 
and precision. But if the combiner of two elements understands 
only one of them, the combination will hardly be satisfactory; 
and in this instance it is unlikely that the comprehension of only 
one clement is possible: it is both or nothing. A purely literary 
poet can very likely never exist; the literary quality rather in- 
vades the work in a greater or smaller measure. Swinburne is 
one of the best examples I know of a poet of a fairly high order 
of talent whose work is pretty evenly corrupted by "literary" 
habits. Mr. T. S. Eliot's essay on Swinburne defines the quality 
admirably. Symons, Wilde, and Dowson carry farther what Swin- 
burne began: their poetry is almost devoid of meaning. 

As one approaches a norm, one's variations from that norm 
take on more significance. If the convention of a poem is badly 
defined, the poetry is vague. This is one of the many things 
wrong with most of Shelley, Byron, Hugo, De Musset, Lamar- 
tinc, and the other typical romantics. The same weakness inheres 
in some measure in Swinburne, though Swinburne's vagueness 
is commonly of a more consistent quality. 

The "literary," of course, is what commonly appears tradi- 
tional to the popular and even the academic taste: Swinburne is 
preferred to Landor, and Housman to Bridges. The traditional 
is ordinarily thrust aside as merely literary; or else, in such poets 
as Crashaw or Williams, it is completely overlooked because the 
reader is nonplussed by experimental elements. We have noth- 
ing but Arnold's touchstones to guide us in this difficulty, and 
our own hard work to make us worthy of guidance; that, and the 
Grace of God. It is an obscure procedure, but Landor is surely 
greater than Swinburne and Bridges than Housman. 

IV. Pseudo-experimental poetry is the work of a poet who con- 
fuses tradition with convention, and who, desiring to experi- 
ment, sees no way to escape from or alter tradition save by the 
abandonment of convention: it means the abandonment of form 
and of poetry. Mr. E. E. Cummings is a good example of this 
type of poet. When Mr. Cummings ceases to experiment, and 
essays the traditional, he becomes painfully literary. Either way 
he shows little comprehension of poetry. 

To what extent can the principles herein defined be brought 
to the defense of the methods employed by the experimental 
poets of twentieth century America and of the French Symbolist 
School, methods to which I have elsewhere objected? Any an- 
swer must be prefaced with the warning that what is true of one 
type of convention need not be true of another. What is true 
even of one sub-type need not be true of another sub-type of the 
same group: consider, for example, the number and variety of 
the forms of pseudo-reference. 

The convention of heightened intensity is sound procedure in 
Williams' poem On the road to the contagious hospital, which I 
have discussed at length, because there is poetic justification, a 
genuine motivation, for the conventional language, and the con- 
ventional language is graduated to the wholly poetic with great 
skill and energy. Were there no such justification, however, the 
poem would belong, with many of H. D/s poems on Greek land- 
scape, in the class of implicit reference to a non-existent symbolic 
value. Much of Wordsworth's more or less Miltonic grandilo- 
quence belongs in the same class: the grandeur never emerges or 
emerges too seldom. Bryant is sometimes similar, when he applies 
a tone of moral grandeur to material that is purely physical and 
unable to support such a tone. 

The pseudo-reference of T. S. Eliot's Gerontion ) partly a mat- 
ter of reference to non-existent plots, partly a matter of purely 
grammatical logic, seems in some ways to resemble the height- 
ened intensity employed by Dr. Williams in On the road to the 
contagious hospital. That is, while Dr. Williams, in certain pas- 
sages, assumes more feeling than he perceives, Mr. Eliot, in cer- 


tain passages, assumes more reasonableness than he perceives. 
Dr. Williams works up to passages in which his claims are sup- 
ported by perception; so does Mr. Eliot; and in each poem these 
passages represent the core of the poem, not only as regards feel- 
ing, but as regards rational theme. The climax of Mr. Eliot's 
poem, the passage beginning: "I that was near your heart was 
removed therefrom," justly one of the most famous passages in 
recent poetry, is probably greater than anything in the poem by 
Dr. Williams, though perhaps not so much greater as Mr. Eliot's 
admirers (who commonly fail to understand Dr. Williams alto- 
gether) might be ready to believe. 

On the other hand, Dr. Williams' poem is far more solidly 
written. The fine passages in Gerontion, though frequently of a 
magnificent precision in themselves, arise from a mass of care- 
fully veiled imprecisions, which, on first glance, appear to have 
more meaning than they really have. The success of conven- 
tional language of this kind depends very largely on the reader's 
being more or less deluded: the procedure in Dr. Williams' poem 
is at once more in the open and more definite, and one knows 
what is happening at every instant. There are moments in Mr. 
Eliot's poem at which no one can be really sure of what is going 
on, and as a result one feels, or I cannot escape feeling, a degree 
of uncertainty in the very essence of the poem. One has again, 
perhaps, the fallacy of imitative form: the attempt to express a 
state of uncertainty by uncertainty of expression; whereas the 
sound procedure would be to make a lucid and controlled state- 
ment regarding the condition of uncertainty, a procedure, how- 
ever, which would require that the poet understand the nature 
of uncertainty, not that he be uncertain. Gerontion, at any rate, 
is the most skillful modern poem in English to employ any large 
measure of pseudo-reference; the superiority of its pseudo-refer- 
ence to most of that of Crane and of Yeats probably derives from 
the fact that it is deliberate, whereas theirs is commonly in a 
large part unintentional in Gerontion it is mystification instead 
of confusion, or at least is employed willfully and deliberately as 
a means of bringing certain recognized, and, for the author, irre- 
ducible confusion, under a little control. 

To cite another example of pseudo-reference, Hart Crane's 
poem The Dance reverses the order of conventional and poetic 
language employed by Williams. That is, Williams' language is 
largely conventional in the early part of the poem, and then takes 
on poetic fullness at the climax. Crane's poem, on the other 
hand, displays most of its fully poetic content (the purely but 
brilliantly descriptive writing) scattered through the first half, 
approximately, of the poem, and then breaks into a complete dis- 
junction of feeling and meaning at the climax. 

The purely grammatical logic of much of Faustus and Helen, 
parts I and III, might be in a measure defensible on the same 
grounds as the pseudo-reference of Gerontion, or to the same ex- 
tent, except that there is a much greater proportion of pseudo- 
reference in the poem by Crane and that there is much less clar- 
ity as to the general theme, so that the moments of coherence arc 
never sufficient to give any perceptible support to the conglom- 
eration of conventional language. 

But we may probably say for any kind of pseudo-reference 
that it goes through the forms of reasonable statement and hence 
may be a preparation for reasonable statement, or a stop-gap be- 
tween passages of reasonable statement, and that, if it does not 
occur in great excess and is distributed in small enough bits, if, 
in short, it is not too obtrusive and is not too seriously involved 
in the very conception of the poem, it may do relatively little 
harm and so be accepted at times as an apparently inevitable evil. 

Laforguian irony, however, is not a preparation for anything 
else, is not an unfulfilled form, but is merely a slipshod attitude, 
final in itself, and invariably a vice of feeling. Qualitative pro- 
gression, likewise, is not a preparation for anything else; it offers 
no unfulfilled claims or half-utilized machinery. If it is central to 
the structure of the work that is, if the theme is really unformu- 
lable and merely a mood it is a vice for the reasons which I have 
given elsewhere. It is legitimate only when used occasionally and 
in an impure way, as Mr. Burke has shown it in use on the pe- 
riphery of Hamlet. 

We may say in general, then, that some kinds of experimental 
convention are more dangerous than others, and the more recent 

types appear to be the most dangerous, perhaps because they have 
been used more boldly or rather, more rashly than experi- 
mental conventions have ever been used before. Secondly and 
finally, traditional poetry is the most economically and firmly 
constructed variety possible. To see this, one has only to compare 
Bridges' The southwind strengthens to a gale to Gerontion or to 
The Dance. 


THE DICHOTOMY of major and minor poetry is obviously unsatis- 
factory, nor is the reason for this the one so often given, that gen- 
eral descriptive terms have no meaning. They can at least be 
given meaning. If Ben Jonson is a major poet and Campion a 
minor poet, it is patently outrageous to apply either epithet to 
Byron; yet Byron for the present has a place in our literature, 
and, though it seems incredible that he should be read as long as 
Jonson or as Campion, it is probable that he will be read for a 
long time. Of Jonson and Campion we may say that both are 
masters; few men have lived to write as well; it is unlikely that 
many men have lived to appreciate them fully. Their difference 
is mainly a difference of scope; the achievement of Campion can- 
not be dimmed by comparison with the achievement of the great- 
est poets, for within its scope it is unimpeachable. The achieve- 
ment of Byron, on the other hand, suffers by comparison with 
the work of any of the minor masters, even with that of Googe or 
Turberville; in a superficial sense he attempted as much as did 
Jonson, but he understood with precision nothing that he 
touched, and his art he understood least of all. 

The more important poets might be placed in four groups : the 
second-rate, those whose gift for language is inadequate to their 
task, poets such as Byron, D. H. Lawrence, or Poe, and regard- 
less of their other virtues or failings; the major, those who possess 
all of the virtues, both of form and of range; the primitive, those 
who utilize all of the means necessary to the most vigorous form, 
but whose range of material is limited; and the decadent, those 
who display a fine sensitivity to language and who may have a 

very wide scope, but whose work is incomplete formally (in the 
manner of the pseudo-referent and qualitative poets) or is some- 
what but not too seriously weakened by a vice of feeling (in the 
manner of the better post-romantic ironists). The second type 
of decadent poets may differ from the second-rate only in degree 
of weakness. In this essay I shall endeavor to discover some of the 
implications of the terms decadent and primitive as used in this 
way. The nature of major poetry and of the second-rate should 
be reasonably obvious, even though there might be disagreement 
over examples. 

It will be seen that most experimental poetry, particularly ex- 
perimental poetry of the types developed in the late nineteenth 
and early twentieth centuries, appears to issue either in primi- 
tivism or in decadence, if it issues in nothing worse. The term 
primitivism, however, may be allowed to include traditional 
minor poetry as well. 

If we compare The Dance, by Hart Crane, to one of the better 
poems of Jonson or of George Herbert, it is decadent in the sense 
in which I have just defined the term: it is incomplete poetry. 
Historically, however, Crane's poetry is related not only to Jon- 
son, but to the romantics, especially to Whitman, much of whose 
doctrine Crane adopts. Whitman's doctrine is illusory: like all of 
the anti-rational doctrines of the past two centuries, it vanishes if 
pursued by definition. Whitman, as a second-rate poet, however, 
was equipped to write of it, after a fashion, without rendering its 
nature immediately evident. His poetic language was as vague as 
his expository; he had no capacity for any feeling save of the 
cloudiest and most general kind. Crane's poetic gift is finer than 
Whitman's, and the precision of his language forces one to recog- 
nize the inadequacy of his reference. If he is decadent in com- 
parison to Jonson, he yet marks an advance in relationship to 
Whitman. It would probably be easier to convince most readers 
at present that something is wrong with Crane than that some- 
thing is wrong with Whitman. The reason for this is simple: one 
observes rather quickly that something is wrong with Crane, be- 
cause something is right, and one is thus able to get one's bear- 
ings. From one point of view his language is frequently that of a 


master. Nowhere in Whitman can one find such splendor or 
even such precision of language as in The Dance or as in The 
River. And if one proceeds from these to his most finished per- 
formances, Repose of Rivers? Faustus and Helen II, and Voyages 
II, one has poems in which the trace of decadence is scarcely dis- 
cernible. 1 It would not have been impossible, then, for Crane to 
decrease the amount of pseudo-reference in his poems; as a deca- 
dent poet, he was not bound to deteriorate; nor does his poetry 
indicate that contemporary literature is in a state of deterioration. 
Mr. Pound's Cantos are decadent in relation to Paradise Lost, 
since their structure is purely qualitative. But, historically, there 
is probably another relationship to Whitman here, in which Mr. 
Pound shows not decay but growth. It is not a relationship of 

1 Of Repose of Rivers one may say that the individual images are miraculous, 
but that their order is not invariably necessary; this fact, combined with the 
lack of rhythmical conviction as the poet proceeds from one image to the next, 
results in a frail, almost tentative structure. Faiistus and Helen II is purely 
descriptive and hence offers no temptations to sin; the fantastic subject matter, 
combined with the relative safety of the approach, enabled Crane to utilize his 
entire talent % 'for rhetorical ingenuity without risk of its betraying him. In 
Voyages II, which seems to me his greatest poem, 'he disciplined this talent to 
meet a more dangerous and exacting theme, and achieved greater solidity than 
in Repose of Rivers. 

It will be observed that my selections do not coincide with those of Mr. 
Allen Tate. Mr. Tate speaks of The River as Crane's "most complex and sus- 
tained performance, a masterpiece of aesthetic form," and of Praise for an Urn 
as "the finest elegy in American poetry" (Hound and Horn: Summer, 1932). 
This seems to me sheer nonsense. The latter poem is metrically a very stiff and 
inexpert free verse; except for the two striking lines about the clock and half a 
dozen other passable lines, it is sentimental and affected. "The slant moon on 
the slanting hill," "Delicate riders of the storm," "The everlasting eyes of 
Pierrot/ and of Gargantua the laughter," are sentimental cliches of the twenties, 
and their quality pervades the whole poem. As to The River, it is as ineptly put 
together as any romantic poem I have read: the poem should begin with the 
passage about the cannery works, and everything previous should be discarded; 
about half the lines from the cannery works to the Pullman breakfasters should 
be revised, the eyeless fish, the old gods of the rain, and much of the rest of it 
being the shoddiest of decoration, not even skillful charlatanry; and in the last 
part of the poem, which is the finest and which is very powerful, there are still 
bad lines, tor examples, "Throb past the city storied of three thrones," "All 
fades but one thin skyline 'round. . . . Ahead," and the two final lines of the 
poem: The defects of The River are not due to the theme, but merely to care- 
lessness, and could easily have been revised away. The pantheism which wrecks 
The Dance appears in The River in a fairly harmless form, and merely lends 
pathos to certain lines, particularly to those describing the end of Dan Midland. 


theme, as in Crane's poetry, but one of form. Mr. Pound's long 
line is in part a refinement of Whitman's line; his progression 
from image to image resembles Whitman's in everything save 
Whitman's lack of skill. The Cantos are structurally Whitma- 
nian songs, dealing with non-Whitmanian matter, and displaying 
at their best great suavity and beauty. As Crane shifts out of 
pseudo-reference into rational reference in Voyages II, so Mr. 
Pound in his versions of Propertius, using the same form as in 
the Cantos, produces coherent comment on formulable themes, 
or does so part of the time. The change may be due to the genius 
of Propertius, but it is possible in Mr. Pound's form. The form, 
however, would not permit of any very rapid or compact reason- 

I have elsewhere suggested that post-romantic irony represents 
an advance over the uncritical emotionalism of such poets as 
Hugo or Shelley, in so far as it represents the first step in a diag- 

The primitive poet is the major poet on a smaller scale. The 
decadent poet is the major, or primitive, poet with some impor- 
tant faculty absent from the texture of all his work. Dr. Williams 
is a good example of the type of poet whom I should call the 
contemporary primitive. His best poems display no trace of the 
formal inadequacies which I have mentioned as the signs of 
decadence. Such poems as The Widow's Lament or To Waken 
an Old Lady are fully realized; the form is complete and perfect; 
the feeling is sound. Dr. Williams has a surer feeling for lan- 
guage than any other poet of his generation, save, perhaps, 
Stevens at his best. But he is wholly incapable of coherent 
thought and he had not the good fortune to receive a coherent 
system as his birthright. His expository writing is largely incom- 
prehensible; his novel, A Voyage to Pagany, displays an almost 
ludicrous inability to motivate a long narrative. His experience 
is disconnected and fragmentary, but sometimes a fragment is 
wrought to great beauty. His widest range has been reached in a 
single piece of prose, The Destruction of Tenochtitlan, in which 
he found his material more or less ready for treatment in the 


form of history: in treating it, he achieved one of the few great 
prose styles of our time. 2 

Dr. Williams bears a certain resemblance to the best lyric poets 
of the thirteenth century: there is in both an extreme sophistica- 
tion of style, a naive limitation of theme (Dr. Williams has a 
wider range than the early poets, however) and a fresh enthusi- 
asm for the theme. It was out of such poetry as Alisoun that 
English poetry little by little grew. Sidney represents a resurgence 
of the same quality at a later date, but touched with Petrarchan 
decadence. 3 Decadent poetry, as I have defined it, would have 
been impossible in thirteenth century England: it requires a ma- 
ture poetry as a background. 

A decadent poet such as Crane may, as I have said, if consid- 
ered historically, represent a gain and not a loss. As a matter of 
fact, he may embody the most economical method of recovery 
for an old and rich tradition in a state of collapse, for he offers 
all of the machinery of a mature and complicated poetry. Both 
decadent and primitive lack an understanding and correlation of 
their experience: the primitive accepts his limitations through 
wisdom or ignorance; the decadent endeavors to conceal them, 
or, like some primitives, may never discover them; the primitive, 
however, treats of what he understands and the decadent of more 
than he understands. For either to achieve major poetry there is 
necessary an intellectual clarification of some kind. But to attain 
major poetry from the position of a primitive poet such as Dr. 
Williams might necessitate the creation of a good deal of techni- 
cal machinery as well; whereas the pseudo-referent poet has most 
of his machinery made and already partly in action. 

* In connection with the fragmentariness, the primitivism, of this piece, it is 
worth noting that the rhetoric, perhaps merely because of the perfection to 
which it raises traditional heroic prose, resembles closely that or Macaulay's 
History, the passage in Macaulay describing the formation and character of 
Cromwell's army, offering especially striking similarity. Macaulay chose to write 
a five volume work, one of the supreme English masterpieces, in this style. Dr. 
Williams happened to write a twelve-page masterpiece in the style, or so one is 
forced to conclude from the quality of most of his prose. 

'In connection with this statement and others regarding the lyrics of the 
sixteenth century, see my review of the Oxford Book of 16th Century Verse, 
edited by E. K. Chambers, in the Hound and Horn, Volume VI, Number 4. 


There is probably the same relationship between the Pe- 
trarchan rhetoric of the sixteenth century, with its decorative and 
more or less pseudo-referent conceit, and the best Metaphysical 
verse of the seventeenth century. In Shakespeare's sonnets the 
rhetoric is Petrarchan, yet the Petrarchan conceit is given a 
weight of meaning new to it; something similar occurs in the 
poetry of Fulke Greville. The gap between the sonnets of Shake- 
speare and the sonnets of Donne is not extremely great. Yet the 
best thirteenth century lyrics, like the best early Tudor lyrics, 
those by such men as Vaux, Googe, Gascoigne, and Turberville, 
are better poetry than the work of Daniel or of Dray ton, in spite 
of the fact that they would have been less immediately useful in 
certain ways to Donne. So with our contemporaries: Dr. Williams 
is more consistently excellent than Crane, and at his best is pos- 
sibly better. Crane's machinery, convenient as it might at any 
moment prove, remains, so long as it is not utilized, a source of 

The decadent poetry of Mr. Pound does not appear to me to 
provide so many opportunities for filling out as does that of 
Crane, partly because of the meter, which presents a problem too 
elaborate in itself for discussion here, and partly because all, or 
nearly all, superfluous machinery in the way of pseudo-referent 
forms has been avoided. That is, the difficulty of extending the 
usefulness of a convention may often bear a direct relationship to 
the perfection with which the convention accomplishes the aims 
for which it was created. 

A perfect primitive poet is not of necessity better than a deca- 
dent poet, though he may be; in fact a decadent poet may seem of 
greater value than a poet whom one might call major. Some 
major poets are greater than others, and a poem by Mr. Stevens, 
technically decadent because tinged with his vice Of the Man- 
ner of Addressing Clouds, for example may suffer extremely 
little from its decadence and be in other respects a poem of tre- 
mendous power. 

The poetry of Mr. Paul Val6ry demonstrates that decadence 
may be a very economical mode of recovery. Mr. Val6ry was 


formed in the influence of the Symbolists, poets decadent, fre- 
quently, in the same way as the Americans of the second and 
third decades of the twentieth century. The poet who illustrates 
this point more clearly than any other in English is Mr. T. Sturge 
Moore, who shares in a considerable measure the background of 
Mr. Val<ry. 

Mr. J. V. Cunningham, in the Commonweal for July 27, 1932, 
describes Mr. Moore's favorite theme as that "spiritual pride 
which would overreach natural limits ... the effort to violate 
human relationships by imposing one's identity on others," to- 
gether with criticism of such spiritual pride. Mr. Cunningham 
cites the excellent poem On Four Poplars as an instance of the 
subject matter, and other poems could be cited. The theme, how- 
ever, is not limited to the ethical sphere in Mr. Moore, but has 
its religious counterpart, in a mysticism related to that of poets so 
diverse as Hart Crane and Robinson Jeffers, which leads to the 
attempt to violate our relationship with God, or with whatever 
myth we put in his place, even with Nothingness, and which 
leads concurrently to the minimizing of moral distinctions, that 
is, of the careful perception of strictly human experience. Mr. 
Moore differs from the Romantic mystics in defining this tempta- 
tion without succumbing; in defining not only the temptation 
but its legitimate uses, and its dangers. His repeated poems on 
the subject of Silence, and his repeated references to Semele, are 
among the more obvious indications of his interest in the subject. 
His great lyric To Silence may be taken as an allegorical sum- 
mary of this theme and of his own relationship to romantic tradi- 
tion, the tradition of rejuvenation through immersion in pure 
feeling, or sensation, the immersion which is the mystical com- 
munion of the romantic, and which occurs in its most perfect 
literary examples among the devotees of imitative form to be 
found in the French Symbolist and American Experimental 

Mr, Moore's immersion has actually led to rejuvenation, to an 
inexhaustibly fascinating freshness of perception : the immersion 
of other poets has too often led to disintegration. I quote the 
entire text of the poem To Silence: 

O deep and clear as is the sky, 

A soul is as a bird in thee 

That travels on and on; so I, 

Like a snared linnet > now break free, 

Who sought thee once with leisured grace 

As hale youth seeks the sea's warm bays. 

And as a floating nereid sleeps 

In the deep-billowed ocean-stream; 

And by some goat-herd on lone rock 

Is thought a corpse, though she may dream 

And profit by both health and ease 

Nursed on those high green rolling seas, 

Long once 1 drifted in thy tide, 

Appearing dead to those I passed; 

Yet lived in thee, and dreamed, and waked 

Twice what I had been. Now, I cast 

Me broken on thy buoyant deep 

And dreamless in thy calm would sleep. 

Silence, 1 almost now believe 
Thou art the speech on lips divine, 
Their greatest kindness to their child. 
Yet 1, who for all wisdom pine. 
Seek thee but as a bather swims 
To refresh and not dissolve his limbs: 

Though these be thine, who asked and had, 
And asked and had again, again, 
Yet always found they wanted more 
Till craving grew to be a pain; 
And they at last to silence fled, 
Glad to lose all for which they pled. 

O pure and wide as is the sky 
Heal me, yet give me back to life/ 


Though thou foresee the day when I, 
Sated with failure, dead to strife, 
Shall seek in thee my beings end, 
Still be to my fond hope a friend. 

The structure of the poem is logical and the reference is exact, 
but the feeling is very strange. There is a remarkable freshness of 
sensitivity, yet it is a different freshness from that of a primitive, 
such as Dr. Williams. It might almost be characterized as the 
hypersensitivity of convalescence: the poet is minutely sensitive 
to dangers and meanings past but imminent, to which Dr. Wil- 
liams is not only insensitive but of the very existence of which he 
is unaware. 

If we can imagine that human experience is portrayable geo- 
metrically as a continuous circle on which there are equally 
spaced points, A, C, E, and G, and that classical poetry has been 
written with these as its chief points of reference, we can then 
imagine a breakdown, a period of confusion, in which these 
points are lost, but after which a new set of points, B, D, F, and 
H, also spaced equally but not the same points, are established. 
These new points would give a comparable balance, or intelli- 
gence, perhaps, but an altered view of the detail, that is, an 
altered quality of perception, of feeling. Or it might be that the 
old points would merely be regained after the breakdown, the 
quality of the perception being then affected by the past experi- 
ence of the breakdown. 

It is as if we extended the allegory of the poem just quoted, 
thus: Silence is equal to pure quality, unclassified sensation (a 
purely hypothetical infinity, which, however, we can approach 
indefinitely), 4 and the immersion in sensation (or confusion) 

*Cf. Morris Cohen, Reason and Nature, page 37: "Avenarius wishes to 
purify our world-view by returning to the natural view of experience as it 
existed before it was vitiated by the sophistications of thought On the form of 
introjection). But the empiricist's uncritical use of the category of the given, 
and the nominalistic dogma that relations are created rather than discovered by 
thought, lead Avenarius to banish not only animism and other myths, but also 
the categories, substance, causality, etc., as inventions of the mind. In doing 
this he runs afoul of the great insight of Kant that without concepts or cate- 
gories percepts are blind." Also Allen Tate, The Fallacy of Humanism, in The 

amounts to the dissolution of one's previous standards in order 
to obtain a fresh sensibility. This is what the romantic movement 
amounted to, the degree of dissolution varying with each poet, 
regardless of whether the dissolution was necessary. Mr. Moore 
states explicitly, however, in this poem and in others, not only 
the value of the immersion, but its peril, and the need of the 
return. This does not mean that Mr. Moore at any point in his 
career has performed experiments like those of Rimbaud or of 
Joyce; he has not done so publicly, and there is no reason to sup- 
pose that he has done so privately. But his sensibility was pro- 
foundly affected by those who did perform them; he is a part of 
the tradition that had at an earlier point in its history subjected 
itself to the immersion; his private history as a poet begins at the 
point in the history of the tradition at which recovery has begun, 
and his talents enable him to bring that recovery to its highest 
pitch of development; but he remembers and understands what 
preceded him, and his sensibility bears witness to the fact. He 
thus resembles Paul Val^ry, though of the two poets his relation- 
ship to the Symbolist tradition is perhaps the more obvious. The 
feeling of strangeness and freshness is still upon Mr. Moore's 
poetry, as upon one who has just emerged from the sea. One 
should examine in particular the following poems: To Silence, 
To Slow Music, From Titian s Bacchanal, the first half of the 
double sonnet Silence, Love's First Communion, An Aged 
Beauty's Prayer, The Deeper Desire, the sonnets on Sappho, 
Semele, lo, Suggested by the Representation on a Grecian Am- 
phora, The Song of Chiron, Tragic Fates, To a Child Listening 
to a Repeater, and, among his longer works, Daimonassa (per- 
haps his greatest single achievement), Mariamne, The Sea Is 
Kind, The Centaurs Booty, and The Rout of the Amazons. 

The term decadence is frequently used to denote or connote 
personal immorality, yet even in this sense the historical defense 
is sometimes effective. There is no doubt that Verlaine was per- 

Critique of Humanism (Brewer and Warren: 1930): "Pure Quality is nature 
itself because it is the source of experience. . . . Pure Quality would be pure 
evil, and it is only through the means of our recovery from a lasting immersion 
in it ... that any man survives the present hour; Pure Quality is pure dis- 


sonally childish, sentimental, and debauched. He was in some 
ways one of the most muddled souls of a muddled century: his 
life was pseudo-referent even though his poetry was frequently 
not, and, like his poetry, was too often governed wholly by mood. 
He was not, as Baudelaire was, morally intelligent among what- 
ever sins he may have committed, and was never much the wiser 
for his sins or wrote better poetry because of them. The greater 
part of his life was simply confusion; yet a narrow margin of it 
he evaluated with precision; to that extent he was superior to 
such formless predecessors as Lamartine or de Musset, who 
smeared everything with a consistent texture of falsity. As a poet, 
Verlaine at his best was rather a primitive than a decadent, 
for his poetry is not ambitious; his best art was as natural and 
proper, if we consider his situation in time and space, and poten- 
tially as valuable to his successors, as was the art of the author of 

1 do not mean that Verlaine's limitations were inevitable, how- 
ever. In offering an historical excuse for decadence, formal or 
personal, I dp not mean to imply that there is ever an historical 
necessity for either, but merely that life is painful if one expects 
more than two or three men in a century to behave as rational 
animals, and that for a good many men there are mitigating cir- 
cumstances. Baudelaire ran through romanticism early in his 
career, to achieve the most remarkable balance of powers in 
French literature after Racine; he had no need of several genera- 
tions of graduated decadence; his recovery was accomplished at 
a bound. He was determined by his period only to this extent: 
that he dealt with the problem of evil in the terms in which he 
had met it, the terms of the romantic view of life; and it was 
because of these terms that he was able to embody the universal 
principles of evil in the experience of his own age and evaluate 
that experience. 

Our own position may be similar. If we doubt the value of the 
romantic communion, if we cannot see that the poet who has 
survived it is a better poet for it, we may at least say this: that 
the communion, as we have experienced it historically, if not per- 
sonally, has extended our knowledge of evil and so made us 

wiser; for the moral intelligence is merely the knowledge and 
evaluation of evil; and the moral intelligence is the measure of 
the man and of the poet alike. It may seem a hard thing to say of 
that troubled and magnificent spirit, Hart Crane, that we shall 
remember him chiefly for his having shown us a new mode of 
damnation, yet it is for this that we remember Orestes, and 
Crane has in addition the glory of being, if not his own /Eschy- 
lus, perhaps, in some fragmentary manner, his own Euripides. 
Again, we should remember that there is no certitude that 
several generations of graduated decadence will lead to recovery; 
they may lead merely to a general condition of hypochondria. 
Crane's first book was better than his second, and the work of his 
last few years displays utter collapse. T. S. Eliot abandoned La- 
forguian irony not to correct his feelings, but to remain satisfied 
with them: his career since has been largely a career of what one 
might call psychic impressionism, a formless curiosity concerning 
queer feelings which are related to odds and ends of more or less 
profound thought. There is current at present a very general 
opinion that it is impossible in our time to write good poetry in 
the mode, let us say, of Bridges, either because of the kind of 
poetry that has been written since ("the stylistic advances of 
Eliot and of Pound"), or because of social conditions ("the chaos 
of modern thought"), or because of both, or because of something 
else. I believe this to be a form of group hypochondria. The sim- 
ple fact of the matter is, that it is harder to imitate Bridges than 
to imitate Pound or Eliot, as it is harder to appreciate him, be- 
cause Bridges is a finer poet and a saner man; he knows more 
than they, and to meet him on his own ground we must know 
more than to meet them. 

Many experimental poets, by limiting themselves to an abnor- 
mal convention, limit themselves in range or in approach: that is, 
become primitives or decadents of necessity; and they lack the 
energy or ability to break free of the elaborate and mechanical 
habits which they have, in perfecting, imposed upon themselves. 
Miss Moore, Dr, Williams, Gerard Hopkins, and Ezra Pound 
might all serve as examples. In other words, the selection of a 
convention is a very serious matter; and the poet who sets out to 


widen his tradition may often succeed only in narrowing or 
sterilizing himself. Crashaw's experimenting at its wildest gets 
wholly out of hand and becomes pseudo-referent decadence. 
Nevertheless, the experimenting of Donne and of Crashaw is 
subject to the check of a comprehensible philosophy, as the ex- 
perimentalism of Pound and of Crane is not. The experimental- 
ism of Milton was subject to such a check and was, I think one 
may say, necessitated by the unprecedented scope of his plan and 
by the unprecedented violence and magnificence of his mind, but 
this is not to say that he was the greatest of poets, though he was, 
of course, one of the greatest. 

The relationship between experimentalism, decadence, and 
primitivism is thus seen to be intimate, though it would be rash 
to formulate many laws of the relationship. 

Decadent poetry may be valuable as a point of departure, either 
to its authors or to others, exactly in so far as its deficiencies are 
recognized and are susceptible of correction. Not all types of 
decadent poetry need be equally valuable in this respect, though 
the understanding of one may equal in value the understanding 
of another as a form of moral knowledge. Unless the deficiencies 
of a decadent convention are recognized, there is little likelihood 
that the convention will be improved; there is great likelihood 
that it will deteriorate; for it is the nature of man to deteriorate 
unless he recognizes the tendency and the source of the deterio- 
ration and expends actual effort to reduce them. 



Section I: FOREWORD 

I HAVE ENDEAVORED to show in other essays that the morality of 
poetry is inextricably involved in its form, and in a particular 
essay that it is closely related to the convention, or norm of feel- 
ing, of any particular poem, and to certain general types of con- 
vention. As the norm of a poem will set certain limits upon the 
range and procedure and quality of feeling possible within the 
poem, we may say that a convention, whether we take the term 
in the particular or in the generic sense, has a life of its own to 
which the poet is largely subjected once he has adopted it. I have 
tried to indicate, in discussing the idea of convention, that meter 
plays an important part in the establishment of convention. I shall 
now endeavor to draw certain general conclusions regarding the 
poetic effectiveness of a few basic types of meter. 

This essay will be divided into five sections, as follows: 

The first section comprises the present descriptive foreword. 

The second section contains a brief sketch of the theory of 
traditional English meter on which my scansion of experimental 
meter and my theories regarding the relationship of meter to 
poetic convention are based. 

The third section is a study of the scansion of free verse and of 
the influence of free verse rhythms upon poetic convention. I 
have begun this analysis with specimens of my own free verse be- 
cause I can speak of my own intentions with a certain amount of 
authority. I have proceeded thence to the poets from whose 
practice I derived my own. I am not sure, however, that my own 

poems offer the clearest illustrations available with which to in- 
troduce the medium to the reader unfamiliar with its principles. 
The deliberate effort which I made in most of these poems to 
introduce a substructure, iambic as to beat, but not pentameter, 
as a kind of counterpoint to the free-verse beat, probably renders 
much of my free-verse too difficult for the beginner to scan and 
may even ruin much of it entirely. The specimens from Dr. Wil- 
liams, H. D., and Mr. Wallace Stevens, however, though they 
possess great finish and variety of movement, probably keep the 
metrical norm a little more obviously in view. If the reader finds 
the meter of my own poems obscure, therefore, he may fairly 
reserve his incredulity regarding the system of scansion until 
after he shall have studied the specimens of scansion from the 
other writers. 

Even so, I have little hope that many readers will understand 
the scansion that I propose for free verse, chiefly because an un- 
derstanding of it requires a very thorough knowledge of all the 
best poems employing the medium in the second and third dec- 
ades of our century, a sensitive and conscientious study of several 
years in duration, the immersion of the student in a particular 
way of feeling, the acquisition of a new and difficult set of habits 
of hearing and of audible reading. This discipline is arduous and 
on the face of it is not particularly tempting: there are so many 
other things that one can do instead. In the few years past, the 
discipline has been almost wholly abandoned save by the few 
poets of the Experimental Generation 1 whose sensibilities were 

1 For the sake of a few loose but usable terms, I offer the following classi- 
fication of 20th century poetry in English: I. The Generation of Forerunners: 
Hardy, Bridges, Yeats, T. Sturge Moore, and Alice Meynell; II. The Genera- 
tion of Transition: Robinson, Frost, and Agnes Lee; III. The Experimental 
Generation: Stevens, Williams, Miss Moore, Miss Loy, Joyce (whose prose is 
related in important ways to the verse of his contemporaries), Adelaide Crapsey, 
Pound, Eliot, H. D., and Lawrence; IV. The Reactionary Generation: Crane 
(a member of this group, instead of the last, solely by virtue of his dates, per- 
sonal affiliations, and inability to write or understand free verse), Tate, Balcer, 
Blackmur, Clayton Stafford, Louise Bogan, Grant Code, J. V. Cunningham, 
Don Stanford, Barbara Gibbs. Mr. J. C. Ranson is a kind of ambiguous and un- 
happy though sometimes distinguished connective between this group and the 
last. The direction and significance of this group are clearest in Howard 
Baker, in a little of Tate, and in the writing, very small in bulk at present, of 
Stafford, Stanford, Cunningham, and perhaps Miss Gibbs. Such a classifica- 


largely formed in this discipline. The most distinguished poets 
of the Reactionary Generation 1 who have attempted free verse- 
Hart Crane and Louise Bogan, for example have been wholly 
unsuccessful in their brief and rare excursions into the medium. 
The Experimental poets who mastered the medium, it is worth 
observing, were those who for some years were more or less 
fanatical on the subject and gave themselves over to it wholly or 
almost wholly: Wallace Stevens is perhaps the only poet living 
who has practiced the new and the old meters simultaneously 
and at a high level of excellence. Very few readers, even profes- 
sionally literary and academic readers, will give the subject the 
attention necessary for even a preliminary perception of it, but I 
am certain of the soundness of my scansion and wish to set it on 
record, for it will be of value to students here and there as time 
goes on. 

For the present, suffice it to say that my objections to free verse 
do not depend upon the scansion of free verse, whether the verse 
be mine or that of any other; the objections are more cogent if 
the verse cannot be scanned. My system of scansion is offered by 
way of a preliminary defense of the medium, to show what it 
really has accomplished, and to limit as far as possible my objec- 
tions, which, in my opinion, have only a narrow, though a quite 
definite, margin of relevancy. The objections are closely related 
to objections which I have made elsewhere to the other aspects of 
the recent experimental conventions. 

The fourth section will deal with the relationship of experi- 
mental to traditional meters, the examples being drawn mainly 
from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and will endeavor 
to show that the relationships are more fruitful of good within 
the old framework of accentual-syllabic meters than within, or in 
connection with, the framework of free verse. 

The fifth section will give a brief summary of the history and 
principles of the heroic couplet, and of its effect upon poetic con- 
vention in the past, and a brief comparison of the powers of the 

tion omits good poets here and there: de la Mare and Viola Meynell cannot 
quite be included; the most important omission is Elizabeth Daryush, the finest 
British poet since T. Sturge Moore. 


heroic couplet Cone of the most thoroughly traditional of all 
forms) with the powers of the forms that have been used in re- 
cent years to take something resembling its place: Websterian 
verse, the long free-verse line, stemming from Whitman and 
brought to its greatest perfection by Pound and by Miss Moore, 
and the syllabic meters of Robert Bridges. 

Although this essay does not cover every known form of meter, 
it should be kept in mind that it does cover the following fields: 
the chief types of modern experimental meter in their relation- 
ship to convention (that is, the common varieties of lyrical free 
verse, and of semi-didactic free verse, Websterian verse, and the 
accentual and syllabic systems of Hopkins and of Bridges), the 
principles of traditional meter in its relationship to convention, 
and the principles of the relationships between traditional and 
experimental meters. That, as nearly as I can discover, is the 
entire bearing of the subject of meter on my present studies. 


THE POETIC? LINE, as I understand the subject, has at one time or 
another been constructed according to four different systems of 
measurement: the quantitative, or classical system, according to 
which a given type of line has a given number of feet, the feet 
being of certain recognized types and being constructed on the 
basis of the lengths of the component syllables; the accentual, or 
Anglo-Saxon, system, according to which the line possesses a 
certain number of accents, the remainder of the line not being 
measured, a system of which free verse is a recent and especially 
complex subdivision; the syllabic, or French, system, according to 
which a line is measured solely by the number of syllables which 
it contains; and the accentual-syllabic, or English, system, which 
in reality is identical with the classical system in its most general 
principles, except that accented and unaccented syllables displace 
long and short as the basis of constructing the foot, and that 
pyrrhic and spondaic feet seldom occur and might in fact be re- 
garded as ideally impossible because of the way in which accent 
is determined, a matter which I shall presently discuss. 
1 06 

Mechanically perfect meter, were it possible, would be lifeless; 
meter of which the variation is purely accidental is, like all other 
manifestations of pure accident, awkward and without character. 
There are in English accentual-syllabic meter the following prin- 
ciples of variation, if no others: 

(1) Substitution: That is, an inverted or trisyllabic or other 
foot may be substituted for an iambic foot in an iambic line, 
or similar alterations may be introduced into other lines. The 
method of substitution varies with writers and with periods. In 
the blank verse of Ben Jonson, there is a taut regularity, the result 
of the very careful manipulation of iambic and trochaic feet; and 
then occasionally there occurs a trisyllabic substitution, which 
effects a nervous leap, as suddenly stilled as it was undertaken : 

Thou vermin, have I taen thee out of dung, 
So poor, so wretched, when no living thing 
Would keep thee company hut a spider or worse? 

The device of trisyllabic and even of quatrosyllabic substitu- 
tion is practiced by Webster to such an extent that the verse 
norm almost disappears, and certain passages are interpreted by 
some editors as prose and by others as verse, with about an equal 
show of reason. Milton, on the other hand, is extremely cautious 
in the use of trisyllabic feet his extra syllables are all but lost in 
elision but he goes very far in the use of trochaic feet and of 
trochaic words in iambic feet. To illustrate the use of the trochaic 
word in the iambic foot, we may employ the first line of Jonson's 
lyric, Drink to me only with thine eyes. Here we have a trochee 
for the first foot and iambs for the remainder; but the word only 
is itself trochaic and echoes the trochaic foot with which the line 
opens and at the same time functions in two iambic feet. 

(2) Quantity. Quantity is an element of poetic rhythm in 
every language, regardless of whether the measure is based upon 
it. In French, a relatively unaccented language of which the 
verse is purely syllabic, quantity and phrase-stress, which are 
governed by no set rules, provide the chief sources of variation; 
in English, quantity provides one major source of variation. 


In an iambic foot, for example, the unaccented syllable may be 
short and the accented syllable long (there is no strict dividing 
point, of course, between short and long, no two syllables being 
of identical length, and no arbitrary categories being necessary 
where the measure is not based upon quantity) : such a foot will 
seem to be very heavily marked. On the other hand, it is quite 
possible for the unaccented syllable to be very long and the ac- 
cented syllable very short consider, for example, the first foot, a 
strictly iambic one, in this line of The Nightingales, by Robert 

Nay, barren are those mountains and spent the streams. 

The variations resulting from this principle can be very finely 
shaded; so much so, in fact, as to obscure the accent on some 

(3) Varying Degrees of Accent. Accent, like quantity, is un- 
limited in its variations. In practice, the manner of distinguishing 
between an -accented and an unaccented syllable is superior, I be- 
lieve, to the manner of distinguishing in classical verse between a 
long syllable and a short. In English verse, a syllable is accented 
or unaccented wholly in relation to the other syllables in the same 
foot, whereas in classical verse each syllable is arbitrarily classified 
by rule, and its length is in a very small measure dependent upon 
the context. This makes for a greater fluidity and sensitivity in 
English, I suspect, and with no loss of precision, perhaps with a 
gain in precision. It also renders the spondaic and pyrrhic feet 
theoretically impossible, as I have said, though they may some- 
times be approximated; a close approximation of a pyrrhic is 
usually followed by a close approximation of a spondaic as in the 
following line: 

Through rest or motion the noon walks the same. 2 

The latter half of the word motion and the article following form 
a fair pyrrhic, the two subsequent words a spondaic. 

8 From Noon at Neebish, by Don Stanford, Hound and Horn, VII-4. 
1 08 

If we take Ben Jonson's line, "Drink to me only with thine 
eyes/' we find that with is accented in relation to the syllable pre- 
ceding it, but that it is more lightly accented than the unaccented 
syllable of the subsequent foot. One has, in other words, a mount- 
ing series of four accents, which can be formally divided into 
two iambic feet, and which is in addition emphasized by an al- 
most equally progressive quantitative series. A very slight shift of 
emphasis in each of these two feet would have made them resem- 
ble the two in the line previously quoted, the pyrrhic followed 
by the spondaic; yet the pyrrhic-spondaic combination appears 
strikingly abnormal as one reads it, and the sequence by Jonson 
glides by almost imperceptibly. 

This rule in regard to the variation of accent is normally over- 
looked by metrists; it is wholly overlooked, for example, by Robert 
Bridges. The oversight results in Bridges' refusal to differentiate, 
so far as terminology is concerned though he differentiates 
sharply in actual practice between what I have called accentual- 
syllabic and syllabic meters : Bridges applies the term syllabic in- 
discriminately to both, and this confusion vitiates in a serious 
manner, I believe, the general conclusions of his work on Milton's 
prosody: he scans Milton incorrectly, it appears to me, for this 
reason, and more particularly Milton's later work, which merely 
represents learned variation to an extreme degree from a per- 
fectly perceptible accentual-syllabic norm, variation expressive of 
very violent feeling. 

(4) Sprung Meter. Sprung meter is loosely described by Hop- 
kins in his preface to his poems. It consists essentially of the jux- 
taposition of heavily and more or less equally accented syllables 
by other means than normal metrical inversion; it is thus a normal 
and characteristic phenomenon of English syllabic meter, as 
written by Robert Bridges and by Elizabeth Daryush, meter in 
which accents may be combined at will, since they have no part 
in the measure, and it is equally characteristic of purely accentual 
meter, in which the measure is based on the number of accents 
and on nothing else, so that monosyllabic feet may easily occur in 
sequence. When sprung meter occurs as a variant of normal ac- 
centual-syllabic meter, it represents, actually, the abandonment, 


for the moment, of the accentual-syllabic norm in favor either of 
the syllabic or of an accentual norm. 

Wyatt employs the accentual variety of sprung rhythm, that in 
which an unaccented syllable is dropped from between two 
accented, so that a monosyllabic foot occurs, as in the second line 

They flee from me, that sometimes did me seek 
With naked foot, stalking in my chamber. 3 

Robert Green, whom Hopkins names as the last English poet to 
use sprung meter, employs the same species as a variant on his 
seven-syllable-couplets : 

Up I start, forth went I, 

With her face to feed mine eye. 4 

The norm of this line is iambic tetrameter, with the initial unac- 
cented syllable omitted; in the first line above, an additional 
unaccented syllable is dropped between the second and third ac- 
cented. Green often writes a line of this kind, but with the initial 
unaccented syllable returned to its place, so that the syllable count 
is undisturbed: 

That when 1 woke, 1 'gan swear, 
Phyllis beauty palm did loear? 

A more normal, perhaps a more true, example of syllabic 
sprung rhythm within an accentual-syllabic poem, is the follow- 
ing line from a poem by Barnabe Googe, Of Money:* 

Fair face show friends when riches do abound. 

Here the accentual weight of the first and third places is increased 
to equal approximately the weight of the second and fourth; we 

and 4 and 5 Oxford Book of 16th Century Vsrse, pages 51, 382, and 381. 
Arber's English Reprints. 


might describe the first two feet as spondaic, except that, as there 
is no compensatory pair of pyrrhics, two extra accents are intro- 
duced into the line, with the result that the accentual measure is 
abandoned and we have no measure left save the purely syllabic. 

Robert Bridges' poem, A Passerby, whatever may have been the 
intention of the author, can be scanned as a poem in iambic 
pentameter, with certain normal substitutions, and with examples 
at irregular intervals of both kinds of sprung meter. 

The first of the two lines below, written by the present author, 
contains both kinds of sprung meter within a single line: 

Warm mind, warm heart, beam, bolt, and lock, 

You hold the love you took, and now at length. . . . 7 

The first four syllables are modeled on the first four in the line by 
Googe; the next two shift to accentual meter, for each represents 
a single foot; the last two syllables are a perfect iambic foot. The 
line is a variant within a sonnet in iambic pentameter; it con- 
tains, according to the scansion just given, eight syllables, five 
feet, seven accented syllables (six of them being in unbroken se- 
quence), and one unaccented syllable. Variants so extraordinary 
as this are seldom wholly admirable, and this one is offered pri- 
marily as an example and a curiosity. 

The reader will find a particularly fine example of sprung 
meter in a poem wholly syllabic, in Still-Life, by Elizabeth Dar- 
yush; 8 of sprung meter in a poem wholly accentual in Inversnaid, 
by Gerard Hopkins. 

7 In a pamphlet called Before Disaster, published by Tryon Pamphlets, 
Tryon, N. C. 

8 This poem appears in full near the end of this essay, and is quoted from 
The Last Man, and Other Poems, by Elizabeth Daryush, Oxford Press, Eng- 
land. Mrs. Daryush has published four other books of importance: Verses: First 
to Fourth Books inclusive. She is one of the few first-rate poets living, and is 
all but unknown. 



I SHALL BEGIN the description of my system for the scansion of 
free verse with an account of two poems of my own and of what 
I endeavored to accomplish in them. The foot which I have used 
consists of one heavily accented syllable, an unlimited number of 
unaccented syllables, and an unlimited number of syllables of 
secondary accent. This resembles the accentual meter of Hop- 
kins, except that Hopkins employed rhyme He appears to have 
had the secondary accent, or subordinate and extra-metrical 
"foot/* in mind, when he spoke of "hangers" and "outrides." 

Accents, as I have already pointed out, cannot be placed in a 
definite number of arbitrary categories; language is fluid, and a 
syllable is accented in a certain way only in relation to the rest of 
the foot. The secondary accent is discernible as a type if the poet 
makes it so. A dozen types of accent are possible in theory, but in 
practice no more than two can be kept distinct in the mind; in 
fact it is not always easy to keep two. 

Ambiguity of accent will be more common in such verse as I 
am describing than in the older verse, but up to a certain point 
this is not a defect, this kind of ambiguity being one of the chief 
beauties of Milton's verse, for example. The poet must be permit- 
ted to use his judgment in dubious instances, and the critic must 
do his best to perceive the reason for any decision. Quantity will 
obviously complicate this type of foot more than it will the foot 
of the more familiar meters. 

I shall mark and discuss two poems of my own, and shall then 
proceed to specimens of free verse from some of the chief poets 
of the Experimental generation, upon whose work my own ear 
for this medium was trained. Since a line which is complete 
metrically may for the sake of emphasis be printed as two lines, I 
shall place a cross-bar (/) at the end of each complete line. I shall 
number the lines which are so marked, for ease in reference. 
Lines which are incomplete metrically, but which are independ- 
ent and not parts of complete lines, will likewise be marked and 
numbered, and these lines will also be marked with an asterisk 


(*). I shall mark each primary stress with double points (") and 
each secondary stress with a single point (0- 

"Quod Tegit Omnia" 

1 Earth darkens and is beaded/ 

2 with a sweat of hushes and/ 

3 the hear comes forth: 
the mind stored -with/ 

4 magnificence proceeds into/ 

5 the mystery of Time, now/ 

6 certain of its choice of/ 

7 passion but uncertain of the/ 

8 passion's end. 


9 Plato temporizes on the nature/ 

10 of the plumage of the soul, the/ 

11 wind hums in the feathers as/ 

12 across a cord impeccable in/ 

13 taiitness but of nff mind:/ 

14 Time, 
the sine-pondere > most/ 

1 5 imperturbable of elements,/ 

16 assumes its own proportions/ 

17 silently, of its own properties/ 

18 an excellence at which one 

19 Adventurer in 
living fact, the poet/ 

20 mounts into the spring/ 

21 upon his tongue the taste of/ 

22 air becoming body: is/ 

23 Embedded in this crystalline/ 

24 precipitate of Time./ 


There are no incomplete lines in the preceding poem, though a 
few lines are broken in two for the sake of emphasis. 

The next poem is more difficult. I shall mark it as if it con- 
tained two feet to the line, and as if most of the lines were printed 
in two parts. The imperfect lines (unassimilable half-lines) are 
marked with a single asterisk (*). Unbroken lines are marked 
with a double asterisk (**). 

The Bitter Moon 

1 Dry snow runs burning 
on the ground like fire/ 

2 the quick of Hell spin on 
the wind. Should I Relieve/ 

3 in this your body, take it 

at its word? 1 have believed/ 

4 in nothing. Earth burns with a 
shadow that has held my/ 

5 flesh; the eye is a shadow 
that consumes the mind/ 

6 * Scream into air! The voices/ 

7 ** Of the dead still vibrate-/ 

8 they will find them, threading 
all the past with twinging/ 

9 ** wires alive like hair in cold./ 

10 * These are the nerves/ 

11 ** of death. 1 am its brain./ 

12 ** You are the way, the oath/ 

13 I take. I hold to this- 

I bent and thwarted by a will/ 

14 ** to live among the living dead/ 

15 ** instead of the dead living; I/ 

16 * become a voice to sound for./ 

17 ** Can you feel through Space,/ 

18 ** imagine beyond Time? 



19 snow alive with moonlight 
licks about my ankles./ 

20 ** Can you find this end?/ 

This poem is marked, as I have said, as if it contained two feet 
to the line. It is possible, however, to regard the poem as having 
a one-foot line, in which case the lines marked with the single 
asterisk and those unmarked are regular, and those marked with 
the double asterisk are irregular. The two-foot hypothesis involves 
the smaller number of irregular lines, and it would eliminate for 
this poem a difficulty in the matter of theory; to wit the question 
of whether a one-foot line is a practical possibility. Consider, for 
example, the possibility of a poem in iambic lines of one foot 
each. The poem will be, if unrhymed, equal to an indefinite 
progression of iambic prose. But in reply, one may object that 
except for iambic pentameter, and except for occasional imitations 
of classical verse, no unrhymed verse has ever been successful in 
English in the past, and that Herrick, at any rate, composed one 
excellent poem in lines each of one iambic foot ("Thus I / Pass 
by / To Die/' etc.) I believe that this discussion will show that 
the secondary accent makes possible the use of unrhymed lines of 
any length, from one foot up to as many as can be managed in 
any other form of meter whether rhymed or not. 

In the poem preceding the last, there was very little difficulty 
in distinguishing between the primary and the secondary accents; 
the trouble lay in distinguishing between secondary accents and 
unaccented syllables. But when, as here, it is the two types of 
stress that are hard to separate, we stand in danger of losing 
entirely our system of measurement. Now, if the meter is success- 
ful, there are in this poem two meters running concurrently and 
providing a kind of counterpoint: one is the free-verse meter, 
marked by the heavy beats, and the other is an iambic meter, 
marked by all the beats, whether heavy or light. The poem can- 
not be arranged in blank verse, however, for the iambic passages 
are incomplete, are fragments laid in here and there to provide 
musical complication and for the sake of their connotative value. 
If the heavy beats cannot be heard as distinct from the light, then 


the free verse scheme vanishes and one has left only a frag- 
mentary blank verse, badly arranged. 

Mr. William Rose Bent, in the Saturday Review of Literature 
(New York) for September 6, 1930, objected to the structure of 
my own free verse, at the same time offering realignments of two 
passages, which he regarded as superior to my own alignments. 
A few weeks later, he published a letter from myself, which 
stated, and for the first time in public, the general principles 
which I am now discussing. One of his revisions was of the open- 
ing lines of the poem which I have just quoted. He heard only 
the incomplete blank verse and rearranged the passage accord- 
ingly, some of the available fragments of blank verse, however, 
being broken in ways that were to myself inexplicable. 

My own free verse was very often balanced on this particular 
tight-rope. During the period in which I was composing it, I was 
much interested in the possibility of making the stanza and 
wherever possible the poem a single rhythmic unit, of which the 
line was a part not sharply separate. This effect I endeavored to 
achieve by the use of run-over lines, a device I took over from Dr. 
Williams, lUiss Moore, and Hopkins, and by the extreme use of 
a continuous iambic undercurrent, so arranged that it could not 
be written successfully as blank verse and that it would smooth 
over the gap from one line of free verse to the next. 

In the standard meters, the run-over line tends to be awkward 
because of the heavy rhythmic pause at the end of each line: 
Milton alone, perhaps, has been highly and uniformly successful 
in the employment of the device, and he has been so by virtue of 
the greatest example of the grand manner in literature, a conven- 
tion so heightened as to enable him to employ this device, which 
in most poets is destructively violent, as a basis for sensitive 
modulations of rhetoric. Even in Websterian verse the line-end is 
too heavily marked for the run-over to be pleasing. But if the 
rhythm can be made to run on rapidly, the meaning can be 
allowed to do so with impunity: hence the terminations in arti- 
cles, adjectives, and similar words so common in free verse of 
this type, and even the frequent terminations in mid-word to be 
observed in Hopkins and in Miss Moore, this last liberty, of 

course, being common also in classical verse, in which, as in 
much free verse, the line-end pause is frequently extremely slight. 
Of the dangers of this type of free verse I shall have more to say 

In the poem last quoted, much of the metrical ambiguity arises 
from the use of an unusually long foot, which allows quantity 
an opportunity somewhat greater than usual to obscure the ac- 
cent. In the line, "at its word? I have believed/* word receives the 
primary accent, but Relieved, which receives a secondary accent, 
is longer and may seem more heavily accented to the unwary. 
In the line "flesh; the eye is a shadow," the heavy accent goes to 
eye, but flesh, because of its position at the beginning of the line 
and before the semi-colon, receives more length than it would 
receive in most other places, and may seem for the moment to 
receive the main accent. In most cases, the reader will find that 
the ambiguity is one of alternatives; that is, he will naturally 
place a heavy accent on one word or on the other, so that the 
pattern will not be damaged. Ambiguities of this sort, and within 
the limits just mentioned, may be a source of value; they are, as I 
have said, one of the principle beauties of Milton's versification. 
If the ambiguity, in free verse, however, ceases to be a hesitation 
between alternatives, and becomes more general, the metrical 
norm is destroyed. 

The poets from whom I learned to write free verse are prob- 
ably better subjects than myself for a demonstration of the theory. 
The poem quoted below, which is by Dr. Williams, contains two 
lines of double length, each of which I have marked with an 

To Waken an Old Lady 

1 Old tige is 

2 a flight of small 

3 cheeping birds 

4 skimming 

5 hare trees 

6 above a snow glaze. 

7 * Gaining and failing, 


8 they are buffeted 

9 by a dark wind 

10 but what? 


11 On the harsh weedstalks 

12 the flock has rested 

13 the snow 

14 is covered with broken 

15 seed-husks, 

16 and the wind tempered 

17 with a shnll 

18 * piping of plenty. 

It will be observed that free verse requires a good deal of vari- 
ation from line to line if the poem is to keep moving, and that as 
the one-foot line permits only a limited amount of variation if the 
foot is not to be stretched out to the danger-point, the poet must 
choose between a very short poem and a good sprinkling of irreg- 
ular lines. 

H. D.'s^Orchard is one of the principal masterpieces of the 
free-verse movement. It employs a one-foot line, with fourteen 
lines of double length out of a total of thirty lines : 

1 J saw the first pear 

2 As it fell 

3 * The honey-seeking, golden-banded, 

4 The yellow swarm 

5 Was not more fleet than I 

6 * (Spare us from loveliness!) 

7 And I jell prostrate, 

8 Crying 

9 * "You have flayed us with your blossoms; 

10 * Spare us the beauty 

11 Of fruit-trees!" 

12 The honey-seeking 

13 Paused not; 

14 * The air thundered their song 

15 * And I dime was prostrate. 

16 O rcwgh-hewn 

17 God of the orchard 

18 * I bring you an offering; 

19 Do you alone unbeautiful 

20 Son of the god 

21 * Spare us from lovelinessl 

22 These fallen hazel-nuts 

23 * Stripped late of their green sheaths; 

24 * Grapes, red-purple, 

25 Their berries 

26 * Dripping with wine; 

27 * Pomegranates already broken 

28 And shrunken figs 

29 * And quinces untouched 

30 * I bring you as offering. 

Some of the details of this poem should be mentioned. Where 
there is a long foot, the heavily accented syllable usually appears 
to receive much less weight than in a short foot, the crowd of 
minor syllables absorbing emphasis from the major syllable. This 
absorption is sometimes, though not invariably, facilitated by the 
placing of two long feet in a single line. Line three is an example 
of this rule; line nine is an exception to it. The position of the 
accent in these lines is relevant to their respective effects: in line 
three, the accent is at the beginning of each foot, with the sec- 
ondary accent and the unaccented syllables following in a rapid 
flicker, an arrangement which makes for speed; in line nine, the 
accent falls near the end of the foot, an arrangement which 
makes for a heavy stop; in both lines the second foot repeats the 
arrangement of the first foot, except for the very light syllable 
before the first heavy accent in line three, an arrangement which 
makes for clarity and emphasis of rhythm. 


If the reader will examine again some of the preceding poems, 
he will find that this device of occasional repetition, either within 
the line or from line to line, may be used effectively for another 
purpose: it may provide the poet with a kind of pause, or mo- 
ment of balance, between different movements, both of them 
rapid, a pause which is roughly analogous to a pause at the end 
of a line in the older meters. 

Miss Marianne Moore has carried the method of continuity, of 
unbroken rush, farther than anyone, not even excepting Hopkins. 
The following lines are from her poem, A Grave. Since an ex- 
tremely long foot is employed, in an extremely long line, I have 
placed a cross-bar at the end of each foot: 

1 men lower nets,/ unconscious of the fact/ that they are 

desecrating/ a grave,/ 

2 and row quickly/ away/ the blades/ of the oars/ 

3 moving together like the/ feet of water-spiders/ as if there 

were no such thing/ as death./ 

4 The wrinkles progress/ upon themselves in a phalanx,/ 

beautiful/ under networks of foam,/ 

5 and fade breathlessly/ while the sea rustles/ in and out of/ 

the seaweed./ 

Most of the generalizations drawn from the poem by H. D. 
could be as well illustrated by examples taken from this passage. 
I have spoken of the remarkably continuous movement in 
Miss Moore's verse; but Miss Moore is seldom wholly at one with 
her meter. There may be, as in this passage, brilliant onomato- 
poetic effects, but the breathlessness of the movement is usually 
in contrast to the minuteness of the details, and this contrast 
frequently strengthens the half-ominous, half-ironic quality of 
the details, at the same time that it is drawing them rather forci- 
bly into a single pattern. This is not a defect, at least in the 
shorter poems: it is a means of saying something that could have 
been said in no other way; and what is said is valuable. But the 
instrument is highly specialized and has a very narrow range of 


A further danger inherent in the instrument becomes apparent 
in Miss Moore's longer poems, such as Marriage and The Octo- 
pus. These poems are at once satiric and didactic, but the satiric 
and didactic forms require of their very nature a coherent ra- 
tional frame. The poems have no such frame, but are essentially 
fragmentary and disconnected. The meter, however, is emphati- 
cally continuous, and creates a kind of temporary illusion of com- 
plete continuity: it is a conventional continuity which never 
receives its justification. Despite the brilliance of much of the 
detail, this unsupported convention is as disappointing as the 
Miltonic convention in Thomson; it is a meaningless shell. In 
the shorter poems, the stated theme often correlates the details 

Dr. W. C. Williams once remarked to me in a letter that free 
verse was to him a means of obtaining widely varying speeds 
within a given type of foot. I believe that this describes what we 
have seen taking place in the examples of free verse which I have 
analyzed. But if the secondary accent becomes negligible for 
many lines in sequence, if, in other words, the speed from foot to 
foot does not vary widely, the poem becomes one of two things: 
if the accentuation is regular, the poem is unrhymed metrical 
verse of the old sort; or if the accentuation is irregular, the poem 
may be a loose unrhymed doggerel but will probably be prose. 
Or there may be an uneven mixture of regularity and of irregu- 
larity, which is the possibility least to be desired. 

The opening of Richard Aldington's Choricos illustrates the 
mixture of free and regular verse: 

1 The ancient songs 

2 Pass deathward mournfully. 

3 Cold lips that sing no more, and withered wreaths, 

4 Regretful eyes, and drooping breasts and wings 

5 Symbols of ancient songs 

6 Mournfully passing 

7 Down to the great white surges. . . . 


The first four lines comprise three perfect lines of blank verse 
Elsewhere in the same poem, we may find free verse aban- 
doned for prose, the line-endings serving only as a kind of punc- 

1 And silently, 

2 And with slow feet approaching, 

3 And with bowed head and unlit eyes 

4 We kneel before thee, 

5 And thou, leaning toward us, 

6 Caressingly layest upon us 

7 flowers from thy thin cold hands; 

8 Andy smiling as a chaste woman 

9 Knowing love in her heart, 

10 Thou sealest our eyes. 

11 And the illimitable quietude 

12 Comes gently upon us. 

The first three lines of this passage might pass for free verse of 
the same kind that Mr. Aldington has used elsewhere in the 
same poem^but line four, in spite of the fact that it can be given 
two major accents, does not continue the movement previously 
established. Line eight is similarly troublesome, and the remain- 
ing lines are uncertain. The difficulty is not mathematical but 
rhythmic: the movement of the lines in the context is awkward 
and breaks down the context. 

This passage raises and answers a rather troublesome question. 
It is possible that any passage of prose even the prose that I am 
now writing might be marked off into more or less discernible 
feet of the kind that I have described, each foot having a heavy 
accent and one or more or perhaps no light accents, and a vary- 
ing number of relatively unaccented syllables. These feet could 
then be written one or two or three to a line. Would the result 
be free verse? I believe not. 

We are supposing in the first place that the writer of prose will 
instinctively choose syllables that fall naturally into three clearly 
discernible classes; whereas this classification of syllables in free 
verse is, in the long run, the result of a deliberate choice, even 


though the poet may be guided only by ear and not by theory. 
But let us for the sake of argument neglect this objection. 

The accented syllables are necessary to free verse, but more is 
necessary: the remaining syllables must be disposed in such a 
way as to establish an harmonious and continuous movement. 
But can the laws of this harmonious and continuous movement 
be defined? That is, can one define every possible type of free 
verse foot and can one then establish all of the combinations 
possible and rule out all the unsatisfactory combinations? I have 
never gone into this subject experimentally, but I believe that 
one can demonstrate rationally that the compilation of such laws 
is impossible. 

The free verse foot is very long, or is likely to be. No two feet 
composed of different words can ever have exactly the same 
values either of accent or of quantity. If one will mark off the 
passage quoted from Mr. Aldington, for example, one will get 
certain combinations which are unsuccessful; but one cannot say 
that the duplication of the same series of accent marks in a dif- 
ferent group of words will be unsuccessful, because the duplica- 
tion of accent marks will not mean the duplication of the exact 
weights and lengths of the original passage. The free verse foot is 
simply too long and too complicated to be handled in this way. 
If the reader feels that this proves free verse to be no verse at all, 
I have two answers: first, that he will have the same difficulty 
with any other purely accentual verse, from the Anglo-Saxon to 
Hopkins and with any purely syllabic; secondly, that if the 
rhythms which I have described can be perceived in a fairly large 
number of poems, and if the failure to establish such rhythms 
can be perceived in other poems, one has a rhythmic system 
distinguishable from prose and frequently of poetic intensity, 
and it matters very little what name it goes by. What is really 
important is the extent of its usefulness, its effect upon poetic 

I do not wish to claim that the poets of whom I write in this 
essay had my system of scansion in mind when writing their 
poems. Probably none of them had it. What I wish to claim is 
this: that the really good free verse of the movement can be 


scanned in this way, and that the nature of our language and the 
difficulties of abandoning the old forms led inevitably to this 
system, though frequently by way of a good deal of uncertain 

Mr. Aldington's Choricos is an attempt to combine certain tra- 
ditional meters, English and classical, and a little biblical prose, 
in a single poem, just as Hugo, for example, employed different 
meters in a single poem, but this procedure, whether employed 
by Hugo or by Richard Aldington, is inevitably too loose to be 
satisfactory. Other poets have quite deliberately employed simple 
prose rhythms. Sometimes the prose is very good, as in One City 
Only, by Alice Corbin, or as in a few poems by Mina Loy. But 
it is not verse, and it is not often a satisfactory medium for 
poetic writing. 

The masters of free verse of the Experimental Generation are 
William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound, Marianne Moore, Wal- 
lace Stevens, H. D., and perhaps Mina Loy in a few poems, 
though the movement of Mina Loy's verse is usually so simpli- 
fied, so denuded of secondary accent, as to be indistinguishable 
from prose. Mr. Eliot never got beyond Websterian verse, a 
bastard variety, though in Gerontion, he handled it with great 
skillwith far greater skill than Webster usually expends upon 
it. Mr. T. Sturge Moore, at the very beginning of the twentieth 
century, published a very brilliant and very curious specimen of 
experimental meter, in The Rout of the Amazons, which, like 
the neo-Websterian verse of Mr. Eliot and of others, employs 
blank verse as its norm, but departs farther from the norm than 
the neo-Websterian poets have been able to depart, and, unlike 
the neo-Websterian verse, never seems to approach prose, but 
rather approaches a firm and controlled free verse as its extreme 

Free verse has been all but abandoned by the next generation : 
a few good specimens are to be found in minor poems by Glen- 
way Wescott, Grant Code, and the late Kathleen Tankersley 
Young; but Messrs. Wescott and Code have written their best 
poems in other forms, and so have all of their ablest contem- 


A major objection to free verse as it has been written by H. D., 
Dr. Williams, and perhaps others, and the objection can be 
raised against much of Hopkins as well, is this: that it tends to a 
rapid run-over line, so that the poem, or in the case of a fairly 
long poem, the stanza or paragraph, is likely to be the most im- 
portant rhythmic unit, the lines being secondary. Hopkins was 
aware of this tendency in his poems, but apparently not of its 
danger. In his own preface to his poems, he writes: ". . . it is 
natural ... for the lines to be rove over, that is, for the scan- 
ning of each line immediately to take up that of the one before, 
so that if the first has one or more syllables at its end the other 
must have as many the less at its beginning; and in fact the 
scanning runs on without break from the beginning, say, of a 
stanza to the end and all the stanza is one long strain, though 
written in lines asunder/' The result is a kind of breathless rush, 
which may very. well be exciting, but which tends to exclude 
or to falsify all save a certain kind of feeling, by enforcing what 
I have called, in my essay on Poetic Convention, a convention 
of heightened intensity. 

Hopkins meets the difficulty by excluding from his poetry 
nearly all feeling that is not ecstatic; Dr. Williams meets it by 
allowing and utilizing a great deal of language that is largely 
conventional. But if a poem is written wholly in conventional 
language, it becomes, when the convention is of this type, merely 
melodramatic and violent, and, when the convention is of some 
other type, weak in some other and corresponding manner. Dr. 
Williams has thrown away much good material thus; so has H. 
D. done; and so have others. 

The extremely abnormal convention is seldom necessary, I be- 
lieve, to the expression of powerful feeling. Shakespeare can be 
just as mad in a sonnet as can Hopkins, and he can be at the same 
time a great many other things which Hopkins cannot be. He 
has a more limber medium and is able to deal with more complex 
feelings. I mean by this, that if no one quality receives extreme 
emphasis, many diverse qualities may be controlled simultane- 
ously, but that if one single quality (the ecstasy of the thirteenth 
century lyric, Alisoun, for example) does receive extreme em- 


phasis, it crowds other qualities out of the poem. The meter, the 
entire tone, of Alisoun, render impossible the overtone of grief 
which would have been present had Hardy dealt with the same 
material, and which would 'have given the poem greater scope, 
greater universality. One may state it as a general law, moral as 
well as metrical, that an increase in complexity commonly results 
in a decrease in emphasis: extreme emphasis, with the resultant 
limitation of scope, is a form of unbalance. Sexual experience is 
over-emphasized in the works of D. H, Lawrence, because Law- 
rence understood so little else and consequently understood sex- 
ual experience so ill. In a very few poems, notably in the sonnet 
To R. B., Hopkins avoids his usual tone in a considerable meas- 
ure, by reverting toward standard meter. His rhymes and his con- 
sequent independence of the secondary accent enable him to do 
this, but a similar reversion is impossible in free verse, a medium 
in which the reversion would simply result in a break-down of 
form. It is difficult to achieve in free verse the freedom of move- 
ment and the range of material offered one by the older forms. 

A few poems appear to indicate that a greater variety of feeling 
is possible in free verse, however, than one might be led to sus- 
pect by the poems thus far quoted. One of the best is The Snow 
Man, by Wallace Stevens: 

1 * One must have a mind of winter 

2 To regard the frost and the houghs 

3 Of the pine-trees crusted with snow; 

4 And have been cold a long time 

5 * To behold the junipers shagged with ice, 

6 The spruces rough in the distant glitter 

7 Of the January sun; and not to think 

8 Of any misery in the sound of the wind, 

9 In the sound of a few leaves, 

10 * Which is the sound of the land 

1 1 Full of the same wind 

12 That is blowing in the same hare place 

13 For the listener, who listens in the snow, 

14 And, nothing hims'elf, beholds 

15 * Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is. 

The norm is of three beats, and there are four irregular lines, the 
first and third having two beats each, the second and fourth hav- 
ing four. Each line in this poem ends on a very heavy pause, pro- 
vides, that is, a long moment of balance before the next move- 
ment begins. The manner in which the secondary accents are 
disposed in the fifth, sixth, and seventh lines, in order to level 
and accelerate the line, is remarkably fine, as is also the manner 
in which the beat becomes slow and heavy in the next few lines 
and the way in which the two movements are resolved at the 
close. There is complete repose between the lines, great speed 
and great slowness within the line, and all in a very short poem. 
Dr. Williams has got comparable effects here and there. The fol- 
lowing poem by Dr. Williams is called The Widow's Lament in 

1 Sorrow is my own yard 

2 Where the new grass 

3 Flames as it has flamed 

4 often before, hut not 

5 with the cold fire 

6 that closes round me this year. 

7 Thirty-five years 

8 1 lived with my husband. 

9 The plum-tree is white toddy 

10 with masses of flowers. 

1 1 Masses of flowers 

12 load the cherry branches 

13 and color some hushes 

14 yellow and some red, 

15 but the grief in my heart 

16 is stronger than they; 

17 for though they were my joy 

18 formerly, today 1 notice them 


19 and turn away forgetting. 

20 Toddy my son told me 

21 * That in the meadow 

22 at the edge of the heavy woods 

23 in the distance, he saw 

24 trees of white flowers. 

25 I feel that I would like 

26 * to go there 

27 and fall into those flowers 

28 * and sink into the marsh near them. 

The slow heavy movement of this poem of two-foot lines is ac- 
centuated by the periodic swift lines (four, six, nine, thirteen 
and fourteen, seventeen and eighteen and nineteen, twenty-two, 
along with a few more or less intermediate lines, like one, ten, 
eleven, twelve, and twenty-eight) out of which the slow lines 
fall with greater emphasis. A poem of much greater length which 
displays a remarkable range of feeling is Mr. T. Sturge Moore's 
play (or, to be more exact, Eclogue) entitled The Rout of the 
Amazons. Mr. Pound's Cantos offer a slow and deliberative 
movement, but are as bound to it as is H. D. to her ecstasy. 

There are at least two additional objections which I should 
mention in connection with the tyranny of free-verse movements, 
objections perhaps inclusive or causative of those already made; 
namely, that two of the principles of variation substitution and 
immeasurably variable degrees of accent which are open to the 
poet employing the old meters, are not open to the poet employ- 
ing free verse, for, as regards substitution, there is no normal foot 
from which to depart, and, as regards accent, there is no foot to 
indicate which syllables are to be considered accented, but the 
accented syllable must identify itself in relation to the entire line, 
the result being that accents are of fairly fixed degrees, and cer- 
tain ranges of possible accent are necessarily represented by gaps. 
In free verse the only norm, so far as the structure of the foot is 
concerned, is perpetual variation, and the only principle govern- 
ing the selection of any foot is a feeling of rhythmical continuity; 
and on the other hand the norm of the line, a certain number of 

accents of recognizably constant intensity, and in spite of the 
presence of the relatively variable secondary accents, inevitably 
results in the species of inflexibility which we have seen equally 
in the fast meters of Williams and in the slow meters of Pound. 
The free-verse poet, however, achieves effects roughly com- 
parable to those of substitution in the old meters in two ways: 
first by the use of lines of irregular length, a device which he 
employs much more commonly than does the poet of the old 
meters and with an effect quite foreign to the effect of too few or 
of extra feet in the old meters; and, secondly, since the norm is 
perpetual variation, by the approximate repetition of a foot or of 
a series of feet. It is a question whether such effects can be em- 
ployed with a subtlety equal to that of fine substitution. Per- 
sonally I am convinced that they cannot be; for in traditional 
verse, each variation, no matter how slight, is exactly perceptible 
and as a result can be given exact meaning as an act of moral 
perception. Exactness of language is always a great advantage, 
and the deficiencies of free verse in this respect will be more 
evident after an examination of some of the traditional meters. 



IN DESCRIBING THE CONSEQUENCES of the swifter forms of free 
verse and of the meters of Hopkins, I have indicated a general 
principle which accounts for a definite and often-regretted tend- 
ency in the history of English meter the tendency of successive 
generations of poets to level their meters more and more toward 
the iambic, that is, toward the normal meter of the language, and 
at the same time to simplify their rhyme schemes, to depart, at 
least, from those schemes, which, like that of Alisoun, contribute 
to a swift and lilting music or to some other highly specialized 
effect. Without assuming the truth of any theories of evolution, 
of progress, or of continuous development in poetry, we may 
recognize the facts that within limited historical patterns, early 
poetry is simple and later poetry is likely to be relatively complex, 
these two adjectives being understood as relating to the content 


of the poetry, the moral consciousness of the art; that, as the 
complex poetry deadens, or, the commoner phenomenon, as the 
critical sensibility to it deadens and the fashion begins to change, 
there are likely to be new outbreaks of emphatic and relatively 
simple, but nevertheless fresh, feeling, which eventually may 
reinvigorate the older tradition. 

How, then, can one reconcile in theory this tendency to in- 
creasing complexity of feeling with the tendency to increasing 
simplicity of means? The answer, I believe, is fairly simple. The 
nearer a norm a writer hovers, the more able is he to vary his 
feelings in opposite or even in many directions, and the more 
significant will be his variations. I have observed elsewhere that 
variations of any kind are more important in proportion as they 
are habitually less pronounced: a man who speaks habitually at 
the top of his voice cannot raise his voice, but a man who speaks 
quietly commands attention by means of a minute inflection. So 
elaborately and emphatically joyous a poem as Alisoun, for ex- 
ample, can be only and exclusively joyous; but Hardy, in the 
more level and calmer song, During Wind and Rain, can define 
a joy fully as profound, indeed more profound, at the same time 
that he is dealing primarily with a tragic theme. To extend the 
comparison to free verse, H. D/s Orchard is purely ecstatic; it is 
as limited in its theme as is Alisoun, and as specialized in its 
meter. But Dr. Williams' poem, The Widow's Lament, is at once 
simpler and calmer in meter and more profound in feeling. The 
difference between these two poems, of course, is due wholly to a 
difference in temperament, and not to the passage of centuries. 
That a specimen of free verse can be found displaying a com- 
plexity and a profundity comparable to those of such poems as 
Hardy's During Wind and Rain and Bridges' Love not too much, 
I do not believe; nor do I believe that such a poem can ever be 
composed. For reasons that will become increasingly clear as this 
discussion progresses, I believe that the nature of free verse is a 
permanent obstacle to such a composition. 

It is worth noting that the songs of Shakespeare are, for the 
most part, the most varied and brilliant exhibitions of minutely 
skillful writing which we possess, as well as the most song-like 

of songs. They are likewise nearly as frail, nearly as minor, as 
any wholly successful poetry could be. The sonnets, on the other 
hand, remain, I suppose, our standard of the greatest possible 
poetry; they are written in the normal line of our poetry and in 
the simplest form of the sonnet. 

The lilting movement of the sixteenth century lyrical meters, 
of Sidney, of England's Helicon, disappears from the work of the 
great masters of the seventeenth century. Even Herrick suggests 
the old feeling ever so slightly, though quite deliberately his 
line has a stony solidity utterly foreign to the lyrics of fifty years 
earlier. Donne employs at times movements which suggest the 
earlier movements, as, for example, in the songs, Sweetest love 1 
do not go, and Go and catch a falling star, but his bony step is 
wholly different from the light pausing and shifting of Sidney; it 
is a grimly serious parody. George Herbert's Church Monuments, 
perhaps the most polished and urbane poem of the Metaphysical 
School and one of the half dozen most profound, is written in 
an iambic pentameter line so carefully modulated, and with its 
rhymes so carefully concealed at different and unexpected points 
in the syntax, that the poem suggests something of the quiet 
plainness of excellent prose without losing the organization and 
variety of verse. 

Crashaw, in his most beautiful devotional poetry, employs 
cadences and imagery suggestive of earlier love poetry and drink- 
ing songs. Thus, in his paraphrase of the Twenty-third Psalm, he 
writes : 

When my wayward breath is flying^ 

He calls home my soul from dying. 

This passage corresponds closely to a passage in a translation 
made by Crashaw from an Italian love song, a fact which might 
lead one to suspect that he sought deliberately for relationships 
between disparate modes of experience and that the correspond- 
encesand there are many of them in his other poems are not 

When my dying 

Life is flying, 

Those sweet airs, that often slew me 

Shall revive we, 

Or reprive me, 
And to many deaths renew me. 

The reader should observe that there is here not only a resem- 
blance between the first couplet of the translated stanza and the 
couplet of the psalm, but that the traditional image of physical 
love, as it appears in the translated stanza, serves as a basis for 
the image of salvation in the psalm; something similar occurs at 
the climax of the famous poem to Saint Theresa; similar also is 
the use, in his various references to the Virgin, of imagery bor- 
rowed from Petrarchan love-poetry; similar also is his application 
of Petrarchan wit to sacred subjects, as if he were, like some 
celestial tumbler, displaying his finest training and ingenuity for 
the greater glory, and out of the purest love, of Godin fact, it is 
in Crashaw that the relationship between the Petrarchan conceit 
and the Metaphysical conceit is perhaps most obvious. The para- 
phrase of the psalm, which is the more complex and profound of 
the two poems just mentioned, is written in couplets and ex- 
hibits very few feminine rhymes. The sudden shift into the 
feminine rhyme in this particular couplet gives an unexpected 
and swiftly dissipated feeling of an earlier, more emphatic, and 
more naive lyricism. 

In the following couplet, likewise from the paraphrase of the 
psalm, there is both in the meter and in the imagery a strong 
suggestion of the poetry of conviviality: 

How my head in ointment swims! 
How my cup o'erlooks her hrims! 

The head, of course, is not swimming with drink, and the cup is 
the cup of bliss, but the instant of delirium is deliberately sought 
and impeccably fixed. The meter contributes to this effect in two 
ways: through the approximate coincidence of length and ac- 
cent, with the resultant swift and simplified movement, and 
through the almost exact metrical similarity of the two lines. The 


spiritualization, if one may employ such a term, of the convivial 
image is partly, of course, the work of the context, but it is also, 
in a large measure, the work of the startling word oerlooks, 
which takes the place of the commoner and purely physical 
oerflows: the word not only implies animation, but suggests a 
trembling balance. The last couplet of the same poem recalls 
the earlier love-lyrics in a similar manner: 

And thence my ripe soul will I breath 
Warm into the Arms of Death. 

One can find many other passages in Crashaw's devotional 
verse to illustrate this practice. Crashaw does not, in passages like 
these, quote or borrow from earlier poetry; he does not ordinarily 
even suggest a particular passage or line from an earlier poet. 
Rather, by fleeting nuances of language, he suggests an anterior 
mode of poetic expression and hence of experience, and in a con- 
text which is new to it. More commonly than not, he suggests in 
this manner not what is most striking in an earlier body of poetry 
but what is most commonplace: an earlier poetic convention be- 
comes the material of his perception, and contributes, along with 
other, apparently disparate, and non-literary material, the ma- 
terial of an extremely complex poetic structure. It is in ways such 
as this that Crashaw is traditional; he is experimental in the ways 
in which he pushes metaphor beyond the bounds of custom and 
frequently even of reason. Crashaw is noted for his experiments; 
the large amount of poetry in which the traditional predominates 
and the experimental is under full control is too seldom appreci- 

This illusion of simplicity, this retreat toward the norm, of 
which I have been speaking, can, however, be achieved only by 
those writers who have mastered the more emphatic and athletic 
exercises; it is inconceivable that a poet insensitive to the fresh 
and skillful enthusiasm of Sidney should achieve the subdued 
complexity of Crashaw, Jonson, or Herrick. The beauty of the 
later masters resides in a good measure in what they suggest and 
refrain from doing, not in that of which they are ignorant or 


incapable. Within the pattern of free verse, this kind of sugges- 
tion is impossible: to depart from a given movement is to aban- 
don it; the absence of a metrical frame accounting for the agree- 
ment or variation of every syllable, heavy or light, and allowing 
immeasurable variation of accent, makes exact and subtle vari- 
ation and suggestion impossible. Similarly, there is no manner 
in which the rhythms of a poem in free verse, such as H. D/s 
Orchard, could be utilized or suggested in a poem in accentual- 
syllabic meter, for the two systems are unrelated and mutually 
destructive. In so far, however, as the difficulties of maintaining 
rhythm in new and structurally unsatisfactory patterns, may 
have forced poets and their readers to strain the attention upon 
certain fine shades of accent and quantity, it is possible that 
the free-verse poets may have eventually a beneficial effect upon 
poets writing in accentual-syllabic verse; in so far as free verse 
has encouraged careless substitution in the older meter, has en- 
couraged an approximation of the movement of accentual-sylla- 
bic verse to that of purely accentual, its effect has quite per- 
ceptibly beenHindesirable. Eliot, Tate, and MacLeish exemplify 
the latter influence. 



A BRIEF STUDY of the heroic couplet and a comparison of the 
couplet with certain forms that have been used for more or less 
the same purposes as those which encouraged the couplet may 
throw a little more light on our subject. 

The chief masters of the heroic couplet during the period in 
which it was the most widely used and the most widely useful 
poetic instrument are: Dryden, Pope, Gay, Johnson, and Church- 
ill. In Goldsmith and in Crabbe alike the instrument is relaxed 
and the poem is diluted either with facile sentiment or with 
plodding exposition, although much admirable poetry may be 
found in these writers. 

Dryden used the couplet for a wide variety of purposes. In his 
Alneid, it is an adequate epic instrument, only a little inferior to 


Milton's blank verse, the inferiority being so slight as to be fairly 
attributable to the men and not to their instruments. As an ex- 
ample of the grandeur to which Dryden is able to raise this form, 
we may turn to the descent of yEneas into Hell in the sixth book, 
a passage quoted by Saintsbury, and as fine in its way as the 
original of Vergil. 

Dryden employs the couplet as a powerful satirical instrument, 
as the meter for some of our greatest didactic poetry, and, in the 
opening lines of Religio Laid, as the medium for meditative 
lyricism of a very high order. 

By changing to feminine rhymes, by placing the cesura regu- 
larly after the third foot, and by using an internal rhyme at this 
point in the first two lines, Dryden transforms the couplet into a 
song meter: 

No, no poor suff'ring heart, no change endeavor; 
Choose to sustain the smart, rather than leave her: 
My ravished eyes behold such charms about her, 
1 can die -with her but not live without her; 
One tender sigh of hers to see me languish, 
Will more than pay the price of my past anguish. 
Beware, O cruel fair, how you smile on me; 
'Twos a kind look of yours that has undone me. 

Love has in store for me one happy minute. 

And she will end my pain who did begin it: 

Then no day void of bliss or pleasure leaving, 

Ages shall slide away without perceiving; 

Cupid shall guard the door, the more to please us, 

And keep out time and Death, when they would seize us. 

Time and Death shall depart, and say in flying, 

Love has found out a way to live by dying. 

The double meaning of the word dying and the compact wit re- 
call slightly the Metaphysical School, as the former recalls also 
the song-books; the subject also recalls the song-books, and so 
does the careful suggestion of song-rhythm. Yet the poem has the 

sophisticated plainness of Herrick. These suggestions of earlier, 
simpler, and more emphatic modes are real, and they give a real 
profundity to the poem, a profundity fixed in the pun on the last 
word. It is a profundity of feeling, not of thought. The poem is 
one of the best examples that I know of what can be accom- 
plished by means of meticulous variations from a rigid norm. 

Pope restricted the couplet more rigidly than did Dryden. In 
fact, Pope, and his friend and disciple, Gay, represent the closest 
approximation to what we now recognize as the normal form of 
the instrument. Earlier poets appear to be converging consciously 
toward Pope and Gay, who are, in turn, the norm from which 
later poets consciously and carefully depart. Pope in particular is 
crucial to the history of the form, partly by virtue of his very 

Pope, for example, had no talent for purely lyrical composi- 
tion: his efforts in that direction resulted in the genteel inepti- 
tude of A Dying Christian to His Soul, Eloisa to Abelard, and 
the Elegy to the Memory of an Unfortunate Lady. But his in- 
ability so to express himself was compensated by, and may even 
have caused/ a greater complexity of attitude and of subject iftat- 
ter in his satirical and didactic poems than Dryden ever achieved 
in any single work. This additional complication appears to be 
roughly of three sorts: the illustration of the general with a 
deeply personal allusion, such as occurs in the fine couplets on 
Gay in the Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot; the intensification of the 
heroic aspect of the mock-heroic passage, till it takes on, as does 
the close of The Dunciad, a kind of metaphysical magnificence, 
an intensity of terror which renders the satire all the more savage 
and destructive; and the statement in language at once general, 
concentrated, dignified, and pathetic of a truth both tragic and 
so universal as to be wholly impersonal. 

The first of these sources of complication, the introduction of 
the pathos of private loss or of self-justification, is roughly the 
subject matter of Churchill's greatest work, though Churchill's 
approach differs profoundly from that of Pope, and in exploring 
this particular field more fully than did Pope, Churchill in one 
poem all but equals Pope's brilliance and range. The magnifi- 


cence of the mock-heroic is to be found before Pope, in Mac- 
Flecknoe, especially in the passage which parodies Cowley's 
great description of the underwaters of the sea, which occurs 
near the opening of his Davideis, but the mock-heroic in Dryden 
is primarily in the interests of hilarity. Gay, in The Birth of the 
Squire, comes closer to Pope in this respect than does anyone 
else, but with this difference: Gay has wit but no malice, and 
almost invariably sympathizes with his victim and at moments 
appears wholly charmed by him, with the result that his pathos 
is humorous and particular rather than bare and universal. The 
last source of complication, or perhaps one should say the last 
mode in which Pope forces the didactic-satiric poem to invade 
lyrical territory, represents nearly the sole mode in which Johnson 
attains poetic greatness, and the mode in which Goldsmith 
achieved what is perhaps his only moment of great poetry, 

I have illustrated the first and second of these classes by refer- 
ence to familiar passages. Let me illustrate the last by quotation. 
Pope writes in An Essay on Man: 

Heav'n forming each on other to depend, 

A master, or a servant, or a friend, 

Bids each on other for assistance call, 

Till one mans weakness grows the strength of all. 

Wants, frailties, passions, closer still ally 

The common int'rest, or endear the tie. 

To these we owe true friendship, love sincere, 

Each home-felt joy that life inherits here; 

Yet from the same we learn, in its decline, 

Those joys, those loves, those interests to resign; 

Taught half by Reason, half Toy mere decay, 

To welcome Death, and calmly pass away. 

It is this kind of pathos in isolation and perhaps more profoundly 
felt which renders memorable The Vanity of Human Wishes 
and more particularly Johnson's two great prologues, to Comus 
and to A Word to the Wise. It is this kind of pathos to which 
Goldsmith builds in a few brief climactic passages in The De- 


serted Village, but especially in the following couplets, more 
famous, perhaps, in our own age for what may appear their 
democratic morality than for their rhetorical grandeur: 

111 fares the land, to hastening ills a prey, 
Where wealth accumulates and men decay; 
Princes and lords may flourish, or may fade; 
A breath can make them, as a breath has made; 
But a hold peasantry, their country's pride, 
When once destroyed can never he supplied. 

We might summarize these distinctions thus: Dryden touches 
successfully upon a wider range of experience than does Pope, 
and employs the couplet successfully in a greater variety of styles; 
but Pope through the concentration of his entire forces upon a 
single method achieves a greater range in certain individual 
poems than Dryden ever achieves in a single poem; Pope con- 
tains the germs of all the masters of the couplet to follow him 
in his century save Crabbe, and all of them save Crabbe achieve 
greatness by^developing some one aspect of feeling to be found in 
Pope; Johnson, nevertheless, attains a greatness, even a universal- 
ity, in a few poems, which appears scarcely inferior to Pope, 
chiefly by virtue of the way in which the dignity and grandeur of 
his character, his curious combination of private bitterness, pub- 
lic generosity, and Christian humility qualify his apprehension 
of relatively simple themes. It should be noted also, that if Dry- 
den employs the couplet for a wide diversity of ends, by means of 
small variations, Pope, in combining a comparable diversity into 
a single complexity, varies the couplet noticeably less than does 
Dryden; yet he is successful, to the reader familiar with his sensi- 
bility he is one of the most exquisitely finished, as well as one of 
the most profoundly moving, poets in English. Churchill I re- 
serve for detailed treatment. He is the most radical innovator in 
the history of the couplet, and by means of his innovations he 
uncovered a range of feeling, and created a poetry, as complex in 
their way, perhaps, as those of Pope, though he lived to master 
his discoveries in one poem only. 


Churchill's early work contributes nothing of importance to 
the development of heroic verse: it is frequently good the man- 
nerisms described in The Rosciad are amusing, though little 
more but it attempts nothing that Dryden had not already ac- 
complished with greater brilliancy. 

The Candidate, however, introduces a new procedure and a 
new quality of feeling into satirical verse, and the very structure 
of the poem forces one to study the innovation if one is not to 
remain, as a reader of it, suspended in ambiguity. The poem 
is directed against Lord Sandwich, who sought the Highsteward- 
ship of Cambridge, in spite of his notoriously licentious and un- 
scholarly career. The poem, after various preliminaries, gives us 
a portrait of Lothario, a kind of ideal rake, whose identity is not 
given, but who is really Sandwich in disguise. At the conclusion 
of this portrait, the poet informs us that Nature, aghast at having 
created such a monster, by way of atonement gave us Sandwich, 
too. There follows a long account of Sandwich under his own 
name, an account which has at the outset all the appearance of 
the warmest eulogy; as one proceeds, one gradually begins to 
feel the undertone of irony, an undertone which becomes more 
and more evident, until, after several pages, Sandwich and his 
friends are being openly pilloried. This sort of thing, to the best 
of my knowledge, had never been done before; and to the best 
of my knowledge no one has ever pointed out that Churchill did 
it; Churchill, like Gascoigne at an earlier period and like Johnson 
in his own, was a great master obscured by history, that is, by 
the mummification, for purposes of immortal exhibition, of a 
current fashion Gray and Collins, slighter poets in spite of all 
their virtues, were of the party that produced the style of the 
next century and they have come to be regarded, for this reason, 
as the best poets of their period. We have not in The Candidate 
the mock-heroic convention of MacFlecknoe or of Hudibras, 
which, though it involves feigned praise, is frank burlesque. It 
is closer to a quality of Pope, to which I have already referred, 
but it is ironical rather than epigrammatical; it is more evasive, 
less didactic or illustrative of the general, more personal, closer 
to the sophisticated lyrical tradition of such writers as Gascoigne, 


Ben Jonson, and Donne. Churchill, in his ambiguous territory 
between irony and eulogy, awakened a number of feelings be- 
longing neither to irony nor to eulogy, but capable of joining 
with both, and the most perfect example of the junction may be 
found in his greatest poem, the posthumous Dedication to War- 
burton. The poem opens thus: 

Health to great Glo'sterlfrom a man unknown, 
Who holds thy health as dearly as his own, 
Accept this greeting nor let modest fear 
Call up one maiden blush I mean not here 
To wound with flattery; 'tis a villains art, 
And suits not with the frankness of my heart. 
Truth best becomes an orthodox divine, 
And, spite of Hell, that character is mine: 
To speak e'en hitter truths I cannot fear; 
But truth, my lord, is panegyric here. 

Health to great Glo'sterlnor, through love of ease, 
Which all priests love, let this address displease. 
1 ask no favor, not one note I crave, 
And when this busy brain rests in the grave, 
(For till that time it never can have rest) 
I will not trouble you with one bequest. 
Some humbler friend, my mortal journey done, 
More near in blood, a nephew or a son, 
In that dread hour executor I'll leave, 
For 1, alas! have many to receive; 
To give, but little. To great Glo'ster health! 
Nor let thy true and proper love of wealth 
Here take a false alarmin purse though poor, 
In spirit I'm right proud, nor can endure 
The mention of a bribe thy pocket's free. 

The feeling, and, as I have said, it is a new kind of feeling, is 
deeply involved in the rhythms, especially in the relationship of 
syntax to versification. The long and involved sentence, with its 
numerous parenthetical interruptions, hesitations, and after- 

thoughts, is foreign to the other masters of the couplet. It appears 
in Churchill's earlier work in a crude form, but here it carries as 
high a polish as anything in Pope. The style is more different 
from Dryden, Pope, Gay, or Johnson than they are from each 
other, and it is probably a more complex style than any one of 
them ever achieved, though all of them are sufficiently complex, 
Pope and Johnson especially so; Churchill does not, as did Dry- 
den, vary the epigrammatic norm of the familiar couplet, but he 
established a different norm, from which he can, by means of 
suggestion, utilize the norm of Pope much as Dryden and Cra- 
shaw utilized the song-books, at the same time that he is engaged 
in arriving at a very different end. His poetry is one of profound 
and bitter innuendo. 

The heroic couplet must have certain qualities which enable 
the poet employing it to pass easily from description, to lyricism, 
to didacticism, to satire, and so on, or even at times to combine 
several of these qualities at a single stroke. It is doubtful whether 
so much freedom is possible in blank verse; the only satirical poet 
who has employed blank verse with major success is Ben Jonson, 
and much of his satire depends upon significance derived from 
the structure of the play the details from line to line are usually 
variations upon an anterior theme rather than autonomous sum- 
maries. Ben Jonson himself employed the heroic couplet in some 
of his shorter poems, when he wished to indulge in a more direct 
and concentrated attack, and with remarkable vigor, in spite of 
the roughness of his versification. As a didactic instrument, blank 
verse is comparatively heavy and comparatively incapable of 
epigrammatic point; as a lyrical instrument, the range of blank 
verse, though wide, tends to be more closely limited to the gran- 
diloquent and is less capable (in spite of charming passages in 
Fletcher and of Tears Idle Tears) of approaching the flexibility 
and variety of song. The heroic couplet, all things considered, 
appears to be the most flexible of forms: it can suggest by discreet 
imitation, the effects of nearly any other technique conceivable; 
it can contain all of these effects, if need be, in a single poem. 

What, then, makes the couplet so flexible? The answer can be 
given briefly: its seeming inflexibility. That is, the identity of the 


line is stronger in rhymed verse than in unrhymed, because a 
bell is rung at the end of every second line; the identity of the 
line will be stronger in the couplet than in any other stanza be- 
cause the couplet is the simplest and most obvious form of stanza 
possible. This mathematical and almost mechanical recurrence of 
line and stanza provides an obvious substructure and core of 
connotation over which poetic variations may move, from which 
they derive an exact identity. There is, in addition, a norm within 
the norm, at least in the case of every master save Churchill, the 
norm of the Popian couplet; and even Churchill can refer to this 
norm from a distance. 

In spite of this regularity of basic scheme, there is no confine- 
ment of variation. The secondary rhythmic relationships of the 
couplet are unhampered by the rigidity of the primary, and the 
resultant set of relationships (the tertiary) between the constant 
element and the varying element, will be therefore unlimited, at 
the same time, however, that the constant element is providing a 
permanent point of reference, or feeling of cohesion, for the 
whole. The poet may move in any direction whatever, and his 
movement will be almost automatically graduated by the metro- 
nomic undercurrent of regularity; and if he chooses at certain 
times to devote himself to prosaic explanation, the metronome 
and the Popian balance, emerging naked, are capable of giving 
his prose an incisiveness possible in no other form, and of main- 
taining the relationship of the didacticism to the rest of the poem 
the relationship in regard to feeling, I mean, for a didactic pas- 
sage would of necessity represent by explicit statement the ra- 
tional relationships within the poem. 

A longer stanza is likely to be tyrannical. Within a single Spen- 
serian stanza, for example, one cannot gracefully abandon a 
thought and take up another, nor can one let a thought run over 
a large number of stanzas. In the couplet we may have an en- 
tirely free play of thought over a rigid metrical substructure; in 
the longer stanza, thought and stanzaic structure must, very 
largely, coincide. To state it otherwise, in the long stanza the 
varying and constant elements which have already been men- 
tioned in connection with heroic verse tend to fuse in a single 

movement, which, if protracted, becomes monotonous; whereas 
the poet employing couplets and employing at the same time a 
sufficiently comprehensive plot or frame, could move at will 
through all the complexities of Churchill and through all the 
pure and isolated moods to be found in Dryden it would be 
largely a matter of timing. 

Such a form, it seems to me, is the desideratum of those poets, 
who, following more or less in the wake of Mr. Eliot, have en- 
deavored to employ a more or less Websterian verse as a carry-all 
meter. Websterian verse is much looser than good free verse: by 
Websterian verse, I mean that kind of blank verse which has 
been so named in our time, the loose blank verse of the speeches 
of Bosola, of Mr. T. S. Eliot's Gerontion, and of Mr. Archibald 
MacLeish. In nearly all verse of this kind, the sense of the blank 
verse norm is feeble; the substitution of feet becomes meaning- 
less because there is so much of it; there is no care for the distri- 
bution of secondary accents or lesser syllables; and there is no 
basic regularity which can be made to support didactic or other 
linking passages when they are necessary, for the Websterian 
poet simply does not dare to revert over the long distance to 
formal blank verse, for fear of destroying the cohesion of his 

This last weakness means that necessary connecting links are 
evaded, and the evasion has at least two consequences of its own: 
first, the poetry, in so far as it needs logical linking, tends to 
break down into lyrical fragments, as in The Waste Land? and, 
second, the didacticism, not being properly accounted for, is 
likely to edge into passages where it does not belong, and in a 
fragmentary and unsatisfactory form, frequently in the evasive 
and indeterminable form which I have described at length in 
another essay under the name of pseudo-reference. This frag- 
mentary didacticism is unsatisfactory, because the poems I have 
in mind The Waste Land, and Allen Tate's Causerie, and 
Retroduction to American History 11 are fundamentally exposi- 

9 Poems 1909-25, by T. S. Eliot, Faber and Gwyon, London. 

10 Poems 1928-31, by Allen Tate, Scribners, 1932. 

11 Mr. Pope and Other Poems, by Allen Tate, Minton Balch, N. Y., 1928. 

tory poems, akin to the expository poems of Pope and Dryden, 
in that they endeavor to give a summary of a contemporary view 
of life and a criticism of such a view. 

To say that a poet is justified in employing a disintegrating 
form in order to express a feeling of disintegration, is merely a 
sophistical justification of bad poetry, akin to the Whitmanian 
notion that one must write loose and sprawling poetry to "ex- 
press" the loose and sprawling American continent. In fact, all 
feeling, if one gives oneself (that is, one's form) up to it, is a 
way of disintegration; poetic form is by definition a means to 
arrest the disintegration and order the feeling; and in so far as 
any poetry tends toward the formless, it fails to be expressive of 

Mr. Tate's Causerie embodies social criticism and moral in- 
dignation, two traditionally didactic-satiric themes: 

The essential wreckage of your age is different, 

The accident the same; the Annabella 

Of proper incest, no longer incestuous; 

In an age of abstract experience, fornication 

Is self -expression, adjunct to Christian euphoria, 

And whores become delinquents; delinquents, patients; 

Patients, -wards of society. Whores, by that rule, 

Are precious. 

Was it for this that Lucius 
Became the ass of Thessaly? For this did Kyd 
Unlock the lion of passion on his stage? 
To litter a race of politic pimps? To glut 
The Capitol with the progeny of ostlers, 
Where now the antique courtesy of your myths 
Goes in to sleep under a still shadow? 

Compared to any modern satirical or ironical verse, the passage 
is vigorous; compared to the passage from Churchill, it wants 
finish. Yet it is in a sense more serious than Churchill, for it has 

wider implications and rests upon wider and more careful 

The poet who has made the most ambitious attempt of our 
century to create a carry-all form is Ezra Pound, but his free 
verse, though the best of it is better meter than any of the neo- 
Websterian verse, remains in spite of his efforts a lyrical instru- 
ment which is improperly used for other than lyrical effects. 

As in all free verse, and as in Websterian verse, we have in 
Mr. Pound's verse no normal foot, nothing to take the place of 
the couplet's basic regularity, no substructure insisting steadily on 
the identity of the poem, regardless of whither it wander. The 
meter, as in nearly all free verse, is wholly at one with the mood, 
and if the mood undergoes a marked change, the whole poem 
goes off with it and becomes incoherent. Purely didactic poetry is 
impossible in the form, because of the chanting, emotional quality 
of the rhythms, from which there is no escape, even momen- 
tarily: the rhythm implies a limited lyrical mood. 

Unlike the Websterians, Mr. Pound in his best Cantos does 
not muddy his verse with secondary and uncontrolled didacti- 
cism: he is usually didactic, if at all, by implication only, but im- 
plication is inadequate, in the long run, as a didactic instrument. 
In the best Cantos, 12 at least, Mr. Pound is successful, whether in 
fragments or on the whole, but he presents merely a psychologi- 
cal progression or flux, the convention being sometimes that of 
wandering revery, sometimes that of wandering conversation. 
The range of such a convention is narrowly limited, not only as 
regards formulable content, but as regards feeling. The feelings 
attendant upon revery and amiable conversation tend to great 
similarity notwithstanding the subject matter, and they simply 
are not the most vigorous or important feelings of which the 
human being is capable. 

The method, when employed in satirical portraiture, lacks the 
incisiveness of the eighteenth century masters: 

So we left him at last in Chi'dsso 
Along with the old w'dman from Kansas, 

13 A Draft of Thirty Cantos, by Ezra Pound. Hours Press: Paris: 1932. 

* S6lid Kansas, her daughter had married that Swiss 
Who kept the Buffet in ChiZsso. 

Did it shake her? It di'd not shake her. 

She sat there in the waiting room, sdlid Kansas, 

* Stiff as a cigar store Indian from the Bowery 
Such as 6ne saw in the nineties, 

First sod of bleeding Kansas 

That had produced this ligneous solidness. 

* If thou wilt go to Chiasso wilt find that indestructible female 
As if waiting for the train to Top'eka. 

The passage is amusing in a way, but is soft and diffuse. Even 
The Rosciad affords more successful portraits. Notwithstanding 
the concreteness of the material, the meter is already outside the 
range in which it functions most effectively the range, that is, 
of the fourth or of the seventh Canto. The meter is naturally 
elegiac, and the handling of it in such a passage as this is bound 
to be arbitrary and insensitive: the secondary accents fall acci- 
dentally, are. % hard to identify, and are neither perceptive nor 
intrinsically pleasing as sound, and so little attention is paid to 
shadings of quantity as to render the passage very awkward of 
movement. These defects in general are the defects of Mr. 
Pound's style, though in many passages they are far less evident 
than here. Like Swinburne, he has acquired an undeserved repu- 
tation for metrical mastery, largely as a result of a fairly suave 
manipulation of certain insistently recurring mannerisms, which, 
to the half-trained or the half-alert, appear signs of finish and 
control rather than what they are, the signs of a measure of in- 
certitude and of insensitivity. 

Mr. Pound has come no closer than Mr. Tate to creating a 
carry-all meter, but in his efforts he has sometimes created a purer 
poetry than has Mr. Tate while indulging in strictly similar 
efforts, chiefly, perhaps, because Mr. Pound has not been aware 
of comparably difficult material. 

The Testament of Beauty, by Robert Bridges, offers one other 
experiment toward a carry-all form, which I should like, but am 
unable, to admire. The form is unrhymed duodecasyllabics, de- 

pendent for their existence as such upon a definite and reason- 
ably workable system of elision, a form which Bridges calls 
syllabic hexameter or Alexandrin verse. The form, as I under- 
stand it, evolved roughly in this fashion: through Bridges' failure 
to recognize the principle of varying accent and the law of the 
identification of accent, as I gave them early in this essay, Bridges 
came to regard standard English verse as fundamentally syllabic, 
but hampered by certain other half -observed rules; the details of 

this notion he worked out in his metrical studv entitled Milton's 


Prosody. In Samson Agonistes, he found certain twelve-syllable 
lines, which in nearly every case I should be inclined to read as 
violent aberrations from iambic pentameter, but which Bridges, 
since he had a predisposition in favor of the syllable-count as the 
basis of the measure, read as Alexandrins. On the basis of these 
violent and impassioned lines, lines whose metrical force, as far 
as I can feel them, resides in a terrible struggle with the iambic 
pentameter norm, a struggle comparable at moments to the 
struggle of Samson with the pillars, save that in this instance the 
pillars do not, I believe, quite yield, Bridges constructed an un- 
rhymed syllabic hexameter, in which the accents follow no law 
save that of variation, and employed it in a long expository poem 
conceived, like most didactic poetry, at a low and calm level of 
feeling. The Miltonic struggle was eliminated, and had it re- 
mained it would have been highly improper in conjunction with 
the subject-matter; but so also was the Miltonic form eliminated. 
The meter suffers from one of the two basic defects of free verse: 
there is not, as there is in free verse, a limit to the variability of 
accent, but there is, as in free verse, no norm as the basis of varia- 
tion, so that syllables within the line are loose and shuffling, 
though usually, by means of a little arbitrary classification one 
can scan the lines accentually. The result is a meter as invariably 
monotonous as that of Orm, and the reason for the monotony is 
the same : regardless whether one attempts to scan the line accen- 
tually, or whether one follows Bridges and scans it syllabically 
(by all odds the preferable procedure), it successfully avoids the 
accentual-syllabic, avoids, that is, any pattern or norm underlying 
every syllable, so that, though one has constant change of move- 


ment from moment to moment, one has no variation, no precision 
of intention. It has certain advantages, possibly, for the purpose 
to which it is put in the Testament of Beauty over the heavily 
accented meter of Pound: its very monotony gives it a certain 
coherence, the coherence, however, merely of undefined inten- 
tion, yet its freedom from the constant recurrence of the heavy 
measuring accent does not commit it so closely to a particular 
range of feeling; but if Pound's best Cantos, the first six or seven, 
are considered, the meter of Bridges is far less interesting in itself. 
This is curious, for Bridges, in general, is incomparably the better 
poet and the better metrist. 

Bridges* syllables, as employed by himself and by his daughter, 
Elizabeth Daryush, resemble free verse in certain other respects: 
they are more amenable to treatment if rhymed than if un- 
rhymed, just as the double-accentual poems of Hopkins are firmer 
metrically than any of the unrhymed free verse of the Ameri- 
cans; and they are more likely to succeed in a short poem than in 
a long, for in the former the possibilities inherent in the various 
dispositions of Accent can be more or less nearly exhausted with- 
out being repeated. Mrs. Daryush has been more successful, in 
my estimation, in writing syllabics, than was her father, though 
her greatest work, like that of her father, has been in the tradi- 
tional meters. The following sonnet, entitled Still-Life, is one of 
her finest syllabic experiments: 

Through the open French window the warm sun 
lights up the polished breakfast-table, laid 
round a bowl of crimson roses, for one 
a service of Worcester porcelain, arrayed 
near it a melon, peaches, figs, small hot 
rolls in a napkin, fairy rack of toast, 
butter in ice, high silver coffee-pot, 
and, heaped on a salver, the mornings post. 
She comes over the lawn, the young heiress, 
from her early walk in her garden-wood, 
feeling that life's a table set to bless 
her delicate desires with all that's good, 

that even the unopened future lies 
like a love-letter, full of sweet surprise. 

One imagines that the medium could not be used with greater 
beauty than in this poem; there is certainly nothing in the work 
of the American masters of free verse to surpass it, and there is 
little to equal it. Yet like the best free verse, it lacks the final 
precision and power, the flexibility of suggestion, of the best 
work in accentual-syllabics, in which every syllable stands in 
relationship to a definite norm. 

But I must now summarize my position in general terms. The 
sum total of the metrical virtues is necessary to didactic verse or 
to any sort of long poem, and is a profound advantage even to the 
shortest lyric. The sum total may be described briefly as follows: 
coherence of movement, variety of movement, and fine percep- 
tivity. These virtues can occur in conjunction only in a system in 
which every detail is accounted for. That is, if the system is based 
(as English verse is normally based) on accent, then every syl- 
lable must be recognizably in or out of place whether stressed or 
not, and if out of place in a classifiable way; the degree of accent 
must vary perceptibly though immeasurably from a perceptible 
though immeasurable norm; quantity should be used consciously 
to qualify these conditions; in brief, the full sound-value of every 
syllable must be willed for a particular end, and must be precise 
in the attainment of that end. As language has other values than 
those of sound, this ideal will be always forced into some measure 
of compromise with the other values; nevertheless, the essence of 
art, I take it, is that no compromise should be very marked, and the 
perfection of art, though rare and difficult, is not unattainable. In 
a system such as English syllabics, or as free verse, most or all of 
the individual syllables can have no definite relationship to the 
pattern; so that there is no exact basis for judging them, and they 
are, when chosen, relatively without meaning. 

Traditional meter, then, like the other aspects of traditional 
convention which I have discussed in other essays, tends to ex- 
ploit the full possibilities of language; experimental meter, like 
other aspects of experimental convention, is incomplete. To push 


the analogy farther, experimental conventions in general tend to 
abandon comprehensible motive, to resort to unguided feeling; 
similarly experimental meter loses the rational frame which alone 
gives its variations the precision of true perception. Or to put it 
another way: as traditional poetry in general aims to adjust feel- 
ing rightly to motive, it needs the most precise instrument pos- 
sible for the rendering of feeling, and so far as meter is concerned, 
this instrument will be traditional meter. Further, as traditional 
poetry tends to enrich itself with past wisdom, with an acquired 
sense of what is just, so the traditional meters, owing to their very 
subtle adjustibility and suggestibility, are frequently very com- 
plex in their effects, whereas the looser meters tend to be over- 
emphatic and over-simple. 

It will be seen that what I desire of a poem is a clear under- 
standing of motive, and a just evaluation of feeling; the justice 
of the evaluation persisting even into the sound of the least im- 
portant syllable. Such a poem is a perfect and complete act of the 
spirit; it calls upon the full life of the spirit; it is difficult of at- 
tainment, but I am aware of no good reason to be contented with 


Maule's Curse 




DURING THE YEAR 1937, 1 published through the Arrow Editions 
in New York City a volume of criticism entitled Primitivism and 
Decadence; this book is a study of the technical forms taken by 
American Experimental Poetry during the twentieth century- 
it is a study very largely of the forms of unconscious and of con- 
scious obscurantism which are the ultimate development of Ro- 
mantic aesthetic principles qualified to a greater or smaller extent 
by certain aspects of American history. Had I required any fur- 
ther proof of the essential confusion of the literary mind of our 
period, the reception met by this book would have more than 
satisfied me. Its contents were described with placid and painstak- 
ing inaccuracy by many reviewers, with bitterly excited inaccu- 
racy by others; it was attacked for opinions which it did not main- 
tain or even suggest. But above all, it was attacked because it 
pointed to the dangers inherent in obscurantism, and because it 
found obscurity where the reviewer found none. 

The subject of my reception by certain reviewers is not one of 
great general interest, but one series of incidents in connection 
with these reviews perhaps transcends that subject and has a cer- 
tain theoretic interest. In discussing a passage quoted from the 
opening of Hart Craned poem, For the Marriage of Faustus and 
Helen, I complained of the obscurity of the lines beginning, 
"Numbers rebuffed by asphalt/' and said that the numbers might 
refer to numbers of people or to the mathematical abstractions of 
modern life, but that either interpretation left the passage imper- 
fectly comprehensible. Now I was wrong, and in justice to 
Crane, I ought to correct the error. The numbers in question re- 


fer to the sparrows' wings in the preceding line, and by extension, 
to the sparrows, and with this understanding the passage is per- 
fectly clear. Crane is in a good measure to blame for the difficulty, 
for the grammatical reference here and throughout the poem is 
of the loosest, and as one of my reviewers, to whom I shall refer 
in a moment, pointed out, there are elements in the passage that 
actively support the second interpretation and that would no 
doubt be a sufficient justification of the second interpretation if 
that interpretation clarified the passage within itself. My error 
does not, I believe, invalidate my general criticism of Crane, for 
the type of obscurity which I mistakenly found in this passage 
is certainly to be found elsewhere in Crane, though commonly in 
shorter fragments, and I see no reason to believe that I was mis- 
taken in regard to other passages which I found obscure. 

So much, however, for justice to Crane and to myself; it is 
something else that concerns me primarily. A well-known re- 
viewer for a certain journal of advanced political and economic 
theory, who attacked my book, or rather who attacked me per- 
sonally, in terms the most irresponsible and scurrilous, and who 
even ventured* to accuse me of insanity because I objected up to 
a certain point to incoherent poetry, stated in private to one of 
my friends, Mr. Don Stanford, that the numbers in question 
were numbers of people, and that the passage was perfectly clear; 
he did not, however, risk any interpretation of this passage or of 
any other in print, and thus displayed a caution common to prac- 
tically all of my critics. On the other hand, a more friendly re- 
viewer, in the Southern Review, displayed something of my own 
naivet, and exposed himself lamentably. He asserted that this 
passage was sufficiently clear, and that the numbers were the 
mathematical abstractions of modern life, and that the lines a 
little preceding, which deal with baseball scores, stock quotations, 
and similar items support this interpretation; and that they do 
support the interpretation I believe to be true, but they do not 
clarify it. He then rather curiously and not quite coherently 
added a defense of the kind of obscurity to be found in this pas- 
sage.' The defense in itself was ingenious and admirable; it was 
borrowed without acknowledgment from the last three pages of 


the third essay in my book under review, pages in which the 
reader who is curious may find likewise an even more valuable 
answer to the defense. 

But here were two writers who found the passage clear enough 
for each of them, and who were even a trifle contemptuous about 
the whole matter, yet who disagreed with each other as to what 
the passage meant. One of them must be wrong, and if the disin- 
terested reader will consider the passage in the light of the new 
interpretation which I have offered, I think he will agree that 
both are wrong. The passage, then, is unquestionably on record 
as exactly the sort of obscurantism which I asserted it to repre- 
sent, although it is not Crane, in this particular passage, who is 
guilty, but two of his admirers. Crane obviously will gain little 
from the sort of defense which they offered him, nor will litera- 
ture in general profit from the state of mind which led to it. 

The present volume is an attempt to trace some of the earlier 
aspects of this state of mind in America, to suggest at least a part 
of the outline of a history of this state of mind. In so far as this 
history is merely a history of the international romantic move- 
ment, it is probably fairly well understood, at least in general 
terms; in so far as it is merely a history of American religious and 
other ideas and attitudes, it has been well treated by other writers, 
to many of whom I shall refer in the essays to follow. The re- 
lationship of the history of ideas to the history of literary forms, 
however, or conversely, the intellectual and moral significance of 
literary forms, has not been adequately studied; yet this subject 
is the very core of literary criticism and of the understanding of 
the history of literature. In my previous book, I described and 
endeavored to evaluate forms, primarily, and used writers merely 
to illustrate them. In the present volume I have examined indi- 
vidual writers, a procedure which enables me to examine subject 
matter more fully and to relate subject matter more fully to form. 

Stanford University, 1938 


or Hawthorne and the Problem of Allegory 

"At the moment of execution with the halter about his neck and 
while Colonel Pyncheon sat on horseback, grimly gazing at the 
scene Maule had addressed him from the scaffold, and uttered a 
prophecy, of which history as well as fireside tradition, has preserved 
the very words. 'God/ said the dying man, pointing his finger, with 
a ghastly look, at the undismayed countenance of his enemy, 'God 
will give him blood to drink!' " 

The House of the Seven Gables 

OF HAWTHORNE'S THREE most important long works The Scar- 
let Letter, The House of the Seven Gables, and The Marble 
Faun the first is pure allegory, and the other two are impure 
novels, or novels with unassimilated allegorical elements. The 
first is faultless, in scheme and in detail; it is one of the chief 
masterpieces of English prose. The second and third are interest- 
ing, the third in particular, but both are failures, and neither 
would suffice to give the author a very high place in the history 
of prose fiction. Hawthorne's sketches and short stories, at best, 
are slight performances; either they lack meaning, as in the case 
of Mr. Higginbothams Catastrophe, or they lack reality of em- 
bodiment, as in the case of The Birthmark, or, having a measure 
of both, as does The Minister's Black Veil, they yet seem incapa- 
ble of justifying the intensity of the method, their very brevity 
and attendant simplification, perhaps, working against them; the 
best of them, probably, is Young Goodman Brown. In his later 
romances, Septimius Felton,. Dr. Grimshaw's Secret, The Ances- 
tral Footstep, and The Dolliver Romance, and in much of The 
Blithedale Romance as well, Hawthorne struggles unsuccessfully 
with the problem of allegory, but he is still obsessed with it. 
Hawthorne is, then, essentially an allegorist; had he followed 


the advice of Poe and other well-wishers, contemporary with him- 
self and posthumous, and thrown his allegorizing out the window, 
it is certain that nothing essential to his genius would have re- 
mained. He appears to have had none of the personal qualifica- 
tions of a novelist, for one thing: the sombre youth who lived in 
solitude and in contemplation in Salem, for a dozen years or 
more, before succumbing to the charms and propinquity of Miss 
Sophia Peabody and making the spasmodic and only moderately 
successful efforts to accustom himself to daylight which were to 
vex the remainder of his life, was one far more likely to concern 
himself with the theory of mankind than with the chaos, trivial, 
brutal, and exhausting, of the actuality. Furthermore, as we shall 
see more fully, the Puritan view of life was allegorical, and the 
allegorical vision seems to have been strongly impressed upon 
the New England literary mind. It is fairly obvious in much of the 
poetry of Emerson, Emily Dickinson, Byrant, Holmes, and even 
Very Whittier, a Quaker and a peasant, alone of the more inter- 
esting poets escaping; Melville, relatively an outsider, shows the 
impact of New England upon his own genius as much through 
his use of allegory as through his use of New England character; 
and the only important novelist purely a New Englander, aside 
from Hawthorne, that is, O. W. Holmes, was primarily con- 
cerned with the Puritan tendency to allegory, as its one consider 
able satirist, yet was himself more or less addicted to it. 

These matters are speculative. That New England predisposed 
Hawthorne to allegory cannot be shown; yet the disposition in 
both is obvious. And it can easily be shown that New England 
provided the perfect material for one great allegory, and that, in 
all likelihood, she was largely to blame for the later failures. 

The Puritan theology rested primarily upon the doctrine of 
predestination and the inefficaciousness of good works; it sepa- 
rated men sharply and certainly into two groups, the saved and 
the damned, and, technically, at least, was not concerned with 
any subtler shadings. This in itself represents a long step toward 
the allegorization of experience, for a very broad abstraction is 
substituted for the patient study of the minutiae of moral be- 
havior long encouraged by Catholic tradition. Another step was 

necessary, however, and this step was taken in Massachusetts al- 
most at the beginning of the settlement, and in the expulsion of 
Anne Hutchinson became the basis of governmental action: 
whereas the wholly Calvinistic Puritan denied the value of the 
evidence of character and behavior as signs of salvation, and so 
precluded the possibility of their becoming allegorical symbols 
for the orthodox Calvinist, such as Mrs. Hutchinson would 
appear to have been, trusted to no witness save that of the Inner 
Light it became customary in Massachusetts to regard as evi- 
dence of salvation the decision of the individual to enter the 
Church and lead a moral life. 'The Puritans/' says Parkes, "were 
plain blunt men with little taste for mysticism and no talent for 
speculation. A new conception was formulated by English theo- 
logians, of whom William Ames was the most influential. The 
sign of election was not an inner assurance; it was a sober de- 
cision to trust in Christ and obey God's law. Those who made 
this sober decision might feel reasonably confident that they had 
received God's grace; but the surest proof of it was its fruit in con- 
duct; complete assurance was impossible. It was assumed that all 
was the work of grace; it was God, without human cooperation, 
who caused the sober decision to be made. But in actual practice 
this doctrine had the effect of unduly magnifying man's ability to 
save himself, as much as Calvin's conception had unduly mini- 
mized it; conversion was merely a choice to obey a certain code of 
rules, and did not imply any emotional change, any love for God, 
or for holiness, or any genuine religious experience; religion in 
other words was reduced to mere morality." l Objective evidence 
thus took the place of inner assurance, and the behavior of the 
individual took on symbolic value. That is, any sin was evidence 
of damnation; or, in other words, any sin represented all sin. 
When Hester Prynne committed adultery, she committed an act 
as purely representative of complete corruption as the act of Faus- 
tus in signing a contract with Satan. This view of the matter is 
certainly not Catholic and is little short of appalling; it derives 

1 The Puritan Heresy, by H. B. Parkes, The Hound and Horn V-2, Jan.- 
March 1932, pages 173-4. See also The Pragmatic Test by H. B. Parkes, The 
Colt Press, San Francisco, 

from the fact, that although, as Parkes states in the passage just 
quoted, there occurred an exaggeration of the will in the matter 
of practical existence, this same will was still denied in the mat- 
ter of doctrine, for according to doctrine that which man willed 
had been previously willed by God. 

The belief that the judgment of a man is predestined by God, 
and the corollary that the judgment of a good man, since all men 
are either good or bad, purely and simply, is the judgment of 
God, may lead in the natural course of events to extraordinary 
drama; and this the more readily if the actors in the drama are 
isolated from the rest of the world and believe that the drama in 
which they take part is of cosmic importance and central in hu- 
man destiny. Andrews writes: "The belief that God had selected 
New England as the chosen land was profoundly held by the 
Puritans who went there. Winthrop himself in 1640 wrote to 
Lord Saye and Sele of 'this good land which God hath found 
and given to his people/ adding that 'God had chosen this coun- 
try to plant his people in/ Cotton in his sermon, God's Prom- 
ise to His Plantation (London, 1634), devotes much space to 
the same idea This place is appointed me of God/ " 2 And 
Schneider writes on the same subject: "No one can live long in a 
Holy Commonwealth without becoming sensitive, irritable, los- 
ing his sense of values and ultimately his balance. All acts are 
acts either of God or of the devil; all issues are matters of reli- 
gious faith; and all conflicts are holy wars. No matter how trivial 
an opinion might appear from a secular point of view, it be- 
came vital when promulgated as a theological dogma; no matter 
how harmless a fool might be, he was intolerable if he did not 
fit into the Covenant of Grace; no matter how slight an offense 
might be, it was a sin against Almighty God and hence infinite. 
Differences of opinion became differences of faith. Critics be- 
came blasphemers, and innovators, heretics/' 8 And again: ". . . 
the mind of the Puritan was singularly unified and his imagina- 
tion thoroughly moralized. The clergy were, of course, the pro- 

1 The Colonial Period of American History, by Charles M. Andrews; Yale 

niversity Press, 1934. Vol. I, page 386, note 2. 

3 The Puritan Mind, by H. W. Schneider; Henry Holt, 1930, pages 51-2. 

fessional moral scientists, but the laymen were no less dominated 
by such mental habits. The common man and illiterate shared 
with the expert this interest in divining God's purposes in the 
course of events. No event was merely natural; it was an act of 
God and was hence charged with that 'numinous' quality which 
gives birth to both prophetic insight and mystic illumination." 4 
And again: "Nature was instructive to them only in so far as it 
suggested the hidden mysterious operations of designing agents. 
God and devil were both active, scheming, hidden powers, each 
pursuing his own ends by various ministrations, and natural 
events were therefore to be understood only in so far as they 
showed evidence of some divine or diabolical plot." 5 

Now according to the doctrine of predestination, if we inter- 
pret it reasonably, Hester merely gave evidence, in committing 
adultery, that she had always been one of the damned. This 
point of view, if really understood, could never have led to the 
chain of events which Hawthorne described in The Scarlet 
Letter; neither could it have led to the events of the actual his- 
tory of New England. It is at this point that we must consider 
that fluid element, history, in connection with dogma, for Hester, 
like the witches who so occupied the Mathers, was treated as if 
she had wilfully abandoned the ways of God for the ways of 
Satan. This final illogicality introduces the element of drama 
into the allegory of The Scarlet Letter and into the allegorical 
morality of the Puritans. 

The English Puritans who settled Massachusetts were socially 
the product of centuries of the type of ethical discipline fostered 
by the Catholic and Anglo-Catholic Churches. They may have 
denied the freedom of the will and the efficaciousness of good 
works by lip, but by habit, and without really grasping the fact, 
they believed in them and acted upon them. Edwards exhorts 
sinners to repent while preaching the doctrine of the inability 
to repent; the Mathers wrestled with demons physically and in 
broad daylight, and quite obviously felt virtuous for having done 
so; in fact, to such a pass did Puritanism come, that Melville's 
Ahab, who wilfully embarks upon the Sea of Unpredictability 

* Ibid., page 48. 5 Ibid., pages 42-3. 


in order to overtake and slay the Spirit of Evil an effort in 
which he is predestined and at the end of which he is pre- 
destined to destruction appears to us merely the heroic projec- 
tion of a common Puritan type. The Puritan may be said to have 
conceived the Manicheistic struggle between Absolute Good and 
Absolute Evil, which he derived through the processes of simpli- 
fication and misunderstanding which have already been enumer- 
ated, as a kind of preordained or mechanical, yet also holy combat, 
in which his own part was a part at once intense and holy and yet 
immutably regulated. 

There were at least two motives in the new environment which 
tended to intensify the effect of habit in this connection : one was 
the inevitable impulse given to the will by the exaltation attend- 
ant upon a new religious movement; the other was the impulse 
given by the supremely difficult physical surroundings in which 
the new colonies found themselves. Foster writes on these points: 
"The first Puritans, sure in their own hearts that they were the 
elect of God, found the doctrine necessary to sustain them in the 
tremendous ^struggle through which they passed. . . . Hence 
the doctrine nerved to greater activity; and it produced a similar 
effect during the first period of the promulgation of Calvinism, 
among every nation which accepted the system/' 6 The force of 
the will was strengthened at the beginning, then, at the same 
time that its existence was denied and that reliance upon its 
manner of functioning (that is, upon good works) was, from a 
doctrinal standpoint, regarded as sin. The will, highly stimulated, 
but no longer studied and guided by the flexible and sensitive 
ethical scholarship of the Roman tradition, might easily result 
in dangerous action. 

Andrews speaks of this subject as follows: "The dynamic 
agency . . . the driving force which overrode all opposition, 
legal and otherwise, was the profound conviction of the Puritan 
leaders that they were doing the Lord's work. They looked upon 
themselves as instruments in the divine hand for the carrying out 
of a great religious mission, the object of which was the rebuild- 

e A Genetic History of the New England Theology, by Frank Hugh Foster; 
University of Chicago Press, 1907; page 29. 

ing of God's church in a land the undefiled land of America 
divinely set apart as the scene of a holy experiment that should 
renovate the church at large, everywhere corrupt and falling into 
ruins. This new and purified community was to be the home of a 
saving remnant delivered from the wrath to come and was to 
serve as an example to the mother church of a regenerated form 
of faith and worship. It was also to become a proselyting center 
for the conversion of the heathen and the extension of the true 
gospel among those who knew it not. In the fulfillment of this 
mission the Puritans counted obstacles, moral and physical, of 
no moment. Theirs was a religious duty to frustrate their ene- 
mies, to eradicate all inimical opinions, religious and political, 
and to extend the field of their influence as widely as possible. 
Once they had determined on their rules of polity and conduct, 
as laid down in the Bible and interpreted by the clergy, they had 
no doubts of the justness and Tightness of their course. The 
means employed might savor of harshness and inequity, but at all 
costs and under all circumstances, error, sin, and idolatry, in 
whatever form appearing and as determined by themselves, must 
be destroyed. In the process, as events were to prove, a great many 
very human motives played an important part in interpreting the 
law of God, and personal likes and dislikes, hypocrisy, prejudice, 
and passion got badly mixed with the higher and more spiritual 
impulses that were actively at work purging the church of its 



Over a long period, however, the doctrine of predestination 
would naturally lead to religious apathy, for it offered no explicit 
motive to action; and this is precisely that to which it led, for 
after the Great Awakening of the middle of the eighteenth cen- 
tury, itself a reaction to previous decay in the Church, the Church 
lost power rapidly, and by the opening of the nineteenth century 
was succumbing on every hand to Unitarianism, a mildly mor- 
alistic creed, in which the element of supernaturalism was mini- 
mized, and which, in turn, yielded rapidly among the relatively 
intellectual classes to Romantic ethical theory, especially as pro- 
pounded by the Transcendentalists. "It has never been a good 

7 Charles M. Andrews, op. cit., Vol. I, pages 430-1. 


way to induce men to repent/ 1 says Foster, "to tell them that they 
cannot/' 8 Or at least the method has never been highly success- 
ful except when employed by a rhetorician of the power of 
Edwards, or by an orator of the effectiveness of Whitefield; and 
the effect can scarcely be expected long to outlive the immediate 
presence of the speaker. The Unitarians, in depriving the ethical 
life of the more impressive aspects of its supernatural sanction, 
and in offering nothing to take the place of that sanction, all but 
extinguished intensity of moral conviction, although their own 
conviction we may see it portrayed, for example, in The Euro- 
peans, by Henry James, and exemplified in the lucid and classical 
prose of W. E. Channing was a conviction, at least for a period, 
of the greatest firmness and dignity. Emerson eliminated the need 
of moral conviction and of moral understanding alike, by promul- 
gating the allied doctrines of equivalence and of inevitable virtue. 
In an Emersonian universe there is equally no need and no pos- 
sibility of judgment; it is a universe of amiable but of perfectly 
unconscious imbeciles; it is likewise a universe in which the art 
of the fictionist or for that matter, any other art can scarcely be 
expected to flourish. A fictionist who has been in any consider- 
able measure affected by Emersonian or allied concepts, or even 
who is the product of the historical sequence which gave rise to 
Emerson, is likely to find himself gravely confused and may even 
find himself paralyzed; and we have only to read such a docu- 
ment, to cite a single example, as The New Adam and Eve, to 
realize that Hawthorne's own moral ideas, in spite of his intense 
but conflicting moral sentiments, and in spite of his professed dis- 
like for Emerson's philosophy, were much closer to the ideas of 
Emerson than to those of Edwards. 

Now in examining Hawthorne, we are concerned with two 
historical centers: that of the first generation of Puritans in New 
England, in which occurs the action of The Scarlet Letter; and 
that of the post-Unitarian and Romantic intellectuals, in which 
was passed the life of Hawthorne. 

Hawthorne, by nature an allegorist, and a man with a strong 
moral instinct, regardless of the condition of his ideas, found in 

8 Frank Hugh Foster, op. cit., page 29. 

the early history of his own people and region the perfect ma- 
terial for a masterpiece. By selecting sexual sin as the type of all 
sin, he was true alike to the exigencies of drama and of history. In 
the setting which he chose, allegory was realism, the idea was life 
itself; and his prose, always remarkable for its polish and flexi- 
bility, and stripped, for once, of all superfluity, was reduced to 
the living idea, it intensified pure exposition to a quality compar- 
able in its way to that of great poetry. 

The compactness and complexity of the allegory will escape 
all save the most watchful readers. Let us consider the follow- 
ing passage as a representative example. Hester has learned that 
the magistrates and clergy are considering whether or not she 
ought to be separated from her child, and she waits upon Gov- 
ernor Bellingham in order to plead with him: 

"On the wall hung a row of portraits, representing the fore- 
fathers of the Bellingham lineage, some with armor on their 
breasts, and others with stately ruffs and robes of peace. All were 
characterized by the sternness and severity which old portraits so 
invariably put on; as if they were the ghosts, rather than the pic- 
tures, of departed worthies, and were gazing with harsh and in- 
tolerant criticism at the pursuits and enjoyments of living men. 

"At about the center of the oaken panels, that lined the hall, 
was suspended a suit of mail, not, like the pictures, an ancestral 
relic, but of the most modern date; for it had been manufactured 
by a skillful armorer in London, the same year in which Gover- 
nor Bellingham came over to New England. There was a steel 
head-piece, a cuirass, a gorget, and greaves, with a pair of gaunt- 
lets and a sword hanging beneath; all, especially the helmet and 
breast-plate, so highly burnished as to glow with white radiance, 
and scatter an illumination everywhere about the floor. This 
bright panoply was not meant for mere idle show, but had been 
worn by the Governor on many a solemn muster and training 
field, and had glittered, moreover, at the head of a regiment in 
the Pequot war. For, though bred a lawyer, and accustomed to 
speak of Bacon, Coke, Noye, and Finch as his professional asso- 
ciates, the exigencies of this new country had transformed Gov- 
ernor Bellingham into a soldier as well as a statesman and ruler. 

"Little Pearl who was as greatly pleased with the gleaming 
armor as she had been with the glittering frontispiece of the 
housespent some time looking into the polished mirror of the 

" 'Mother/ cried she, 1 see you here. Look! Look!' 

"Hester looked, by way of humoring the child; and she saw 
that, owing to the peculiar effect of the convex mirror, the scarlet 
letter was represented in gigantic and exaggerated proportions, 
so as to be greatly the most prominent feature of her appearance. 
In truth, she seemed absolutely hidden behind it. Pearl pointed 
upward, also, at a similar picture in the head-piece; smiling at her 
mother with the elfish intelligence that was so familiar an expres- 
sion on her small physiognomy. That look of naughty merriment 
was likewise reflected in the mirror, with so much breadth and 
intensity of effect, that it made Hester Prynne feel as if it could 
not be the image of her own child, but of an imp who was seek- 
ing to mold itself into Pearl's shape." 

The portraits are obviously intended as an apology for the 
static portraits in the book, as an illustration of the principle of 
simplification By distance and by generalization; the new armor, 
on the other hand, is the new faith which brought the Puritans 
to New England, and which not only shone with piety "espe- 
cially the helmet and breast-plate," the covering of the head and 
heart but supported them in their practical struggles with phys- 
ical adversaries, and which in addition altered their view of the 
life about them to dogmatic essentials, so that Hester was oblit- 
erated behind the fact of her sin, and Pearl transformed in view 
of her origin. Governor Bellingham, in his combination of legal 
training with military prowess, is representative of his fellow 
colonists, who displayed in a remarkable degree a capacity to act 
with great strength and with absolutely simple directness upon 
principles so generalized as scarcely to be applicable to any par- 
ticular moral problem, which mastered moral difficulties not by 
understanding them, but by crushing them out. 

Historically and relatively considered, Richard Bellingham 
might conceivably have been spared this function in the story, 
for of his group he was one of the two or three most humane and 

liberal; but the qualities represented were the qualities of the 
group of .which he was a leader, and were extremely evident in 
most of the actions of the colony. Perhaps the best or in an- 
other sense, the worst embodiment of these qualities is to be 
found in John Endecott, of whom Andrews gives the following 
characterization: "Endecott had few lovable qualities. He was 
stern, unyielding, and on some subjects a zealot. Johnson apos- 
trophizes him as 'strong, valiant John/ whom Christ had called 
to be his soldier, but the Old Planters, most if not all of whom 
were Anglicans and demanded service according to the Book of 
Common Prayer, deemed themselves slaves and took in very bad 
part his determination to suppress the Church of England in the 
colony. They preferred Roger Conant, who though a less forcible 
man was one much easier to get along with. Endecott's later 
career discloses his attitude toward those who differed with him 
the heathen Indian, the Quaker, the prisoner before him for 
judgment, and the Brownes and other upholders of the Anglican 
service who were disaffected with the Puritan government. It 
also shows his dislike of forms and devices that offended him 
the Book of Common Prayer, the cross of St. George, and the 
Maypole. He was hard, intolerant, and at times cruel. Even the 
Massachusetts government caused him 'to be sadly admonished 
for his offense' in mutilating the flag at Salem in 1635, charging 
him with 'rashness, uncharitableness, indiscretion, and exceeding 
the limits of his calling'; and again in the same year 'committed' 
him for losing his temper. Endecott once apologized to Winthrop 
for striking 'goodman Dexter,' acknowledging that he was rash, 
but saying that Dexter's conduct 'would have provoked a very 
patient man.' The best that can be said of him has been said by 
Chappie ('The Public Service of John Endecott,' Historical Col- 
lections, Essex Institute), an essay in the best Palfrey manner. 
It is odd that Endecott should have chosen for his seal a skull and 
cross-bones." 9 It is interesting to observe in such a passage, as in 
many others, that the Puritans cannot be discussed, nor can they 
discuss each other, without the language employed exceeding the 
limits proper to predestinarians and invoking the traditional mo- 
* Charles M. Andrews, op. cit., Vol. I, page 361, note 3. 


rality of the older churches; yet the attempt to ignore this tradi- 
tional morality as far as might be, and, in the matter of formal 
doctrine, to repudiate it, unquestionably had much to do with 
the formation of such characters as Professor Andrews here de- 
scribes and as Hawthorne in the last passage quoted from him 
symbolizes. The imperceptive, unwavering brutality of many of 
the actions committed in the name of piety in the Massachusetts 
colonies more than justified the curse and prophecy uttered by 
Matthew Maule, that God would give these Puritans blood to 
drink; in the name of God, they had violently cut themselves off 
from human nature; in the end, that is in Hawthorne's genera- 
tion and in the generation following, more than one of them 
drank his own heart's blood, as Hawthorne himself must have 
done in his ultimate and frustrated solitude, and more than one 
of them shed it. 

It is noteworthy that in this passage from The Scarlet Letter 
Hawthorne turns his instrument of allegory, the gift of the Puri- 
tans, against the Puritans themselves, in order to indicate the 
limits of their intelligence; it is noteworthy also that this act of 
criticism, though both clear and sound, is negative, that he no- 
where except in the very general notion of regeneration through 
repentance establishes the nature of the intelligence which might 
exceed the intelligence of the Puritans, but rather hints at the 
ideal existence of a richer and more detailed understanding than 
the Puritan scheme of life is able to contain. The strength of The 
Scarlet Letter is in part safe-guarded by the refusal to explore this 
understanding; the man who was able in the same lifetime to 
write The New Adam and Eve, to conceive the art-colony de- 
scribed in The Marble Faun, and to be shocked at the nude 
statues of antiquity, was scarcely the man to cast a clear and 
steady light upon the finer details of the soul. 

The conception of the book in general is as cleanly allegorical 
as is the conception of the passage quoted. Hester represents the 
repentant sinner, Dimmesdale the half-repentant sinner, and 
Chillingworth the unrepentant sinner. The fact that Chilling- 
worth's sin is the passion for revenge is significant only to the 
extent that this is perhaps the one passion which most completely 
1 68 

isolates man from normal human sympathies and which there- 
fore is most properly used to represent an unregenerate condition. 

The method of allegorization is that of the Puritans them- 
selves; the substance of the allegory remained in a crude form a 
part of their practical Christianity in spite of their Calvinism, 
just as it remained in their non-theological linguistic forms, just 
as we can see it in the language of the best poems of so purely 
and mystically Calvinistic a writer as Jones Very, a living lan- 
guage related to a living experience, but overflowing the limits 
of Calvinistic dogma; Hawthorne's point of view was naturally 
more enlightened than that of the Puritans themselves, yet it was 
insufficiently so to enable him to recover the traditional Chris- 
tian ethics except in the most general terms and by way of his- 
torical sympathy, for had a more complete recovery been possible, 
he would not have been so narrowly bound to the method of 
allegory and the frustration of the later romances would scarcely 
have been so complete. 

Once Hawthorne had reduced the problem of sin to terms as 
general as these, and had brought his allegory to perfect literary 
form, he had, properly speaking, dealt with sin once and for 
all; there was nothing further to be said about it. It would not 
serve to write another allegory with a new set of characters and 
a different sin as the motive; for the particular sin is not par- 
ticular in function, but is merely representative of sin in general, 
as the characters, whatever their names and conditions may be, 
are merely representative of the major stages of sin there is no 
escape from the generality so long as one adheres to the method. 
There was nothing further, then, to be done in this direction, 
save the composition of a few footnotes to the subject in the form 
of sketches. 

The only alternative remaining was to move away from the 
allegorical extreme of narrative toward the specific, that is, to- 
ward the art of the novelist. The attempt was made, but fell 
short of success. In The House of the Seven Gables and in The 
Marble Faun alike the moral understanding of the action and 
there is a serious attempt at such understanding, at least in The 
Marble Faun is corrupted by a provincial sentimentalism ethi- 


cally far inferior to the Manicheism of the Puritans, which was 
plain and comprehensive, however brutal. And Hawthorne had 
small gift for the creation of human beings, a defect allied to 
his other defects and virtues: even the figures in The Scarlet 
Letter are unsatisfactory if one comes to the book expecting to 
find a novel, for they draw their life not from simple and fa- 
miliar human characteristics, as do the figures of Henry James, 
but from the precision and intensity with which they render 
their respective ideas; the very development of the story is neither 
narrative nor dramatic, but expository. When, as in The Marble 
faun or The House of the Seven Gables, there is no idea gov- 
erning the human figure, or when the idea is an incomplete 
or unsatisfactory equivalent of the figure, the figure is likely to 
be a disappointing spectacle, for he is seldom if ever a convincing 
human being and is likely to verge on the ludicrous. Hawthorne 
had not the rich and profound awareness of immediacy which 
might have saved a writer such as Melville in a similar pre- 

His effort to master the novelist's procedure, however, was not 
sustained, for his heart was not in it. In The Blithedale Romance, 
he began as a novelist, but lost himself toward the close in an 
unsuccessful effort to achieve allegory; the four unfinished ro- 
mances represent similar efforts throughout. 

His procedure in the last works was startlingly simple; so 
much so, that no one whom 1 can recollect has run the risk of 
defining it. 

In The Scarlet Letter there occurs a formula which one might 
name the formula of alternative possibilities. In the ninth chap- 
ter, for example, there occurs the following passage: "The peo- 
ple, in the case of which we speak, could justify its prejudice 
against Roger Chillingworth by no fact or argument worthy of 
serious refutation. There was an aged handicraftsman, it is true, 
who had been a citizen of London at the period of Sir Thomas 
Overbury's murder, now some thirty years agone; he testified to 
having seen the physician, under some other name, which the 
narrator of the story had now forgotten, in company with Dr. 
Forman, the famous old conjuror, who was implicated in the 

affair of Overbury. Two or three individuals hinted, that the 
man of skill, during his Indian captivity, had enlarged his med- 
ical attainments by joining in the incantations of the savage 
priests; who were universally acknowledged to be powerful en- 
chanters, often performing seemingly miraculous cures by their 
skill in the black art. A large number many of them were per- 
sons of such sober sense and practical observation that their 
opinions would have been valuable in other matters affirmed 
that Roger Chillingworth's aspect had undergone a remarkable 
change while he had dwelt in the town, and especially since his 
abode with Dimmesdale. At first, his expression had been calm, 
meditative, scholar-like. Now, there was something ugly and evil 
in his face, which they had not previously noticed, and which 
grew still more obvious to sight the oftener they looked upon 
him. According to the vulgar idea, the fire in his laboratory had 
been brought from the lower regions, and was fed with infernal 
fuel; and so, as might be expected, his visage was getting sooty 
with smoke/' 

In such a passage as this, the idea conveyed is clear enough, 
but the embodiment of the idea appears far-fetched, and Haw 
thornc offers it whimsically and apologetically, professing to let 
you take it or leave it. Another example occurs in the eighteenth 
chapter; Dimmesdale and Hester are sitting in the forest, plan- 
ning the flight which ultimately is never to take place, and 
Pearl, the symbolic offspring of the untamed elements of human 
nature, and hence akin to the forest, which, in the Puritan mind, 
was ruled by Satan in person, plays apart: "A fox, startled from 
his sleep by her light footstep on the leaves, looked inquisitively 
at Pearl, as doubting whether it were better to steal off or renew 
his nap on the same spot. A wolf, it is said but here the talc 
has surely lapsed into the improbable came up and smelt of 
PeaiTs robe, and offered his savage head to be patted by her 
hand. The truth seems to be, however, that the mother-forest, 
and these wild things which it nourished, all recognized a kin- 
dred wildncss in the human child." Similarly, in The Marble 
Fmw, one never learns whether Donatello had or had not the 
pointed ears which serve throughout the book as the physical 


symbol of his moral nature; the book ends with the question 
being put to Kenyon, who has had opportunities to observe, and 
with his refusing to reply. 

This device, though it becomes a minor cause of irritation 
through constant recurrence, is relatively harmless, and at times 
is even used with good effect. If we reverse the formula, however, 
so as to make the physical representation perfectly clear but the 
meaning uncertain, we have a very serious situation; and this is 
precisely what occurs, in some measure toward the close of The 
Blithedale Romance, and without mitigation throughout the four 
unfinished romances. We have in the last all of the machinery 
and all of the mannerisms of the allegorist, but we cannot dis- 
cover the substance of his communication, nor is he himself 
aware of it so far as we can judge. We have the symbolic foot- 
print, the symbolic spider, the symbolic elixirs and poisons, but 
we have not that of which they are symbolic; we have the 
hushed, the tense and confidential manner, on the part of the 
narrator, of one who imparts a grave secret, but the words are 
inaudible. Yet we have not, on the other hand, anything ap- 
proaching realistic fiction, for the events are improbable or even 
impossible, and the characters lack all reality. The technique 
neither of the novelist nor of the allegorist was available to Haw- 
thorne when he approached the conditions of his own experi- 
ence: he had looked for signals in nature so long and so intently, 
and his ancestors before him had done so for so many genera- 
tions, that, like a man hypnotized, or like a man corroded with 
madness, he saw them; but he no longer had any way of deter- 
mining their significance, and he had small talent for rendering 
their physical presence with intensity. 

Percy Boynton, 10 in quoting the following passages from Sep- 
timius Felton, refers to it as a self-portrait: "As for Septimius, 
let him alone a moment or two, and then they would see him, 
with his head bent down, brooding, brooding, his eyes fixed on 
some chip, some stone, some common plant, any commonest 

10 Literature and American Life, by Percy H. Boynton; Ginn and Co., 1936; 
page 518. 


thing, as if it were the clew and index to some mystery; and 
when, by chance startled out of these meditations, he lifted his 
eyes, there would be a kind of perplexity, a dissatisfied, foiled 
look in them, as if of his speculations he found no end/' 

It is in this generation and the next that we see most clearly 
and bitterly the realization of Maule's prophecy. These men were 
cut off from their heritage, from their source of significance, 
and were abnormally sensitive to the influence of European Ro- 
manticism. In Emerson 11 the terms of New England mysticism 
and of Romantic amoralism were fused and confused so inex- 
tricably that we have not yet worked ourselves free of them. In 
Poe, a man born without a background, New England or any 
other, Romantic doctrine was introduced directly, in a form free 
of theological terminology, but in a form none the less which 
would tend in the long run to support the influence of Emerson. 
In Melville, the greatest man of his era and of his nation, we 
find a writer superior at certain points in his career in books 
such as Moby Dick and Benito Cereno, for example to the 
confusion and apparently understanding it; at other points in 
books like Mardi and Pierre, succumbing to the confusion; at 
all points in his career made to suffer for the confusion of con- 
temporary literary taste; and at the end, settling himself in si- 
lence, a figure more difficult to face than the later Hawthorne- 
more difficult, because more conscious, more controlled, and 
more nearly indifferent. 

In Henry Adams we see the curse at work most clearly: intel- 
lectual but inconsecutive, unable to justify any principle of ac- 
tion, yet with a character of the highest, a character which de- 
manded not only just action but its justification, he was damned 
to a kind of restless torment; in which, though an historian of 
great learning and of high academic distinction, he transformed 
the Middle Ages by a process of subtle falsification, into a symbol 
of his own latter-day New England longing; in which, though 
a stylist of great power and precision, he propounded the aes- 

11 This subject is fully discussed by H. B. Parkes, The Hound and Horn, 
V-4, July-Sept. 1932, pages 581-601, and The Pragmatic Test. 


thetic theory that modern art must be confused to express con- 
fusion; 12 in which, though a philosopher of a sort, he created one 
of the most unphilosophical theories of history imaginable, as a 
poetic symbol of his own despair. In the suicide of Henry Adams' 
wife it is conceivable that we see the logical outcome of his own 
dilemma, an outcome in his own case prevented by the inherit- 
ance of character, which, like the inheritance of confusion, was 
bequeathed him by early New England. 13 

In The Scarlet Letter, then, Hawthorne composed a great al- 
legory; or, if we look first at the allegorical view of life upon 
which early Puritan society was based, we might almost say 
that he composed a great historical novel. History, which by 
placing him in an anti-intellectual age had cut him off from the 
ideas which might have enabled him to deal with his own pe- 
riod, in part made up for the injustice by facilitating his en- 
trance, for a brief time, into an age more congenial to his nature. 
Had he possessed the capacity for criticizing and organizing con- 
ceptions as well as for dramatizing them, he might have risen 
superior to his disadvantages, but like many other men of major 
genius he lacked this capacity. In turning his back upon the 
excessively simplified conceptions of his Puritan ancestors, he 
abandoned the only orderly concepts, whatever their limitations, 
to which he had access, and in his last work he is restless and 
dissatisfied. The four last romances arc unfinished, and in each 
successive one he sought to incorporate and perfect elements from 
those preceding; the last, The Dolliver Romance, which he had 
sought to make the best, had he lived, is a mere fragment, but 
on the face of it is the most preposterous of all. His dilemma, 
the choice between abstractions inadequate or irrelevant to ex- 
perience on the one hand, and experience on the other as far as 
practicable unilluminated by understanding, is tragically charac- 
teristic of the history of this country and of its literature; only a 
few scattered individuals, at the cost of inordinate labor, and 
often impermanently, have achieved the permeation of human 

12 See the last three or four pages of Mont Saint-Michel and Chartres. 
18 This idea is very ably defended by Katherine Simonds, the New England 
Quarterly, December, 1936. 


experience by a consistent moral understanding which results 
in wisdom and in great art. If art is to he measured by the great- 
ness of the difficulties overcome and the measure is not wholly 
unreasonable, for there can scarcely be virtue without a com- 
prehension of sin, and the wider and more careful the compre- 
hension the richer the virtue then these few writers are very 
great indeed. Hawthorne, when he reversed his formula of al- 
ternative possibilities, and sought to grope his way blindly to 
significance, made the choice of the later Romantics; and his 
groping was met wherever he moved by the smooth and im- 
passive surface of the intense inane. 


or The Ruins of Time 

"From this point the northern side of the bay is a confused mass 
of villages, villas, ruins, palaces, and vines, until we reach its extrem- 
ity; a low promontory, like its opposite neighbor. A small island comes 
next, a sort of natural sentinel; then the coast sweeps northward into 
another and smaller bay, rich to satiety with relics of the past, termi- 
nating at a point some miles farther seaward, with a high, reddish, 
sandy bluff, which almost claims to be a mountain." 


SINCE THE PUBLICATION of Robert Spiller's admirable work on 
Cooper, 1 his importance as a social critic has been generally 
recognized; his literary virtues have had in the past their dis- 
tinguished admirers, though today his reputation as a literary 
artist is very much in eclipse. Of these virtues Mr. Spiller, who 
has done more for him than has any other critic of our period, 
says relatively little, and it may be profitable to attempt a re- 
definition of them in part in the light of Mr. Spiller's examina- 
tion of the social theories. 

Cooper believed in democratic government; and, as an aggres- 
sively patriotic American, he was capable, among the enemies 
of democratic theory, of going to considerable length in its de- 
fense; but he distrusted the common and uneducated man that 
is, he feared irrational mob action; he feared that the idea of 
democracy might easily be degraded into the dogma that what- 
ever a majority decides is right. Such a degradation would result 
naturally in the immediate subversion of law and of civilization; 
and it would open the way for all kinds of illegal individual 
action, which might in turn lead to the acquisition by a few 

1 Fenimore Cooper, Critic of His Times, by Robert E. Spiller; Minton Balch 
and Co., 1931. 

I 7 6 

uneducated and unscrupulous men of great power, either by way 
of finance or by way of demagoguery that is, he saw that it 
might be only a short step from irrational democracy to un- 
scrupulous oligarchy. In such works as The Redskins, Home as 
Found, and The Ways of the Hour extremely bad novels, all 
of them, but extremely acute criticism of his period and of ours 
he portrays and more particularly he comments directly upon 
the incipient symptoms of the disease which he intensely feared, 
even though he did not and could scarcely have been expected to 
foresee the rapidity and extent of its development. In The Bravo, 
in so far as the book is to be regarded merely as a social novel, 
he depicts the evils of oligarchy; within a decade of his death, the 
oligarchy of which he had discerned the first symptoms was 
developing with astonishing rapidity, and within two decades of 
his death it had as regards practical results rendered the legal 
government very largely null, and the nation was adrift in the 
administration of U. S. Grant. 

The nature of this development he understood well enough; 
with characteristically heavy but accurate irony, he described it 
in the pages of his neglected satirical allegory, The Manikins, 
a work which contains much of his ablest prose: "I found . . . 
that the wisest and best of the species, or, what is much the same 
thing, the most responsible, uniformly maintain that he who has 
the largest stake in society is, in the nature of things, the most 
qualified to administer its affairs. By a stake in society is meant, 
agreeable to universal convention, a multiplication of those in- 
terests which occupy us in our daily concerns or what is vul- 
garly called property. This principle works by exciting us to do 
right through those heavy investments of our own which would 
inevitably suffer were we to do wrong. The proposition is now 
clear, nor can the premises readily be mistaken. Happiness is 
the aim of society; and property, or a vested interest in society, 
is the best pledge of our disinterestedness and justice, and the 
best qualification for its proper control. It follows as a legitimate 
corollary, that a multiplication of those interests will increase the 
stake, and render us more and more worthy of the trust by 
elevating us as near as may be to the pure and ethereal condition 


of the angels." This may fairly be taken as a prophecy of the 
approach, if not of the imminence, of celestial luminaries of the 
quality of Vanderbilt, Sage, Drew, and Gould. 

As a check to the social danger, he envisaged two defenses, 
both of which were more or less in effect at the time of his writ- 
ing, and both of which crumbled at the first impact of the enemy 
in the actual event: abstract principle, as embodied in law, es- 
pecially in the courts; and the extension into other parts of the 
country, and the perpetuation, of an hereditary landed aristoc- 
racy such as that of New York of a class wealthy enough to 
enjoy leisure for study and for self-cultivation, yet not wealthy 
enough, and too cultivated to desire, to obtain inordinate power 
for its own sake. This aristocracy should serve as a guide, a 
model, and a stabilizing force; it was the class of which his 
American Gentleman was the type. In the Littlepage trilogy he 
made his most ambitious and successful effort to portray this 
aristocracy as it had existed in New York and to define its social 

In connection with this check to the danger, he seems to have 
been guilty of certain errors. He failed to see that because of 
technological and industrial growth and because of the west- 
ward expansion which was receiving only at the time of his 
death the rapid acceleration which was to effect in three decades 
the greatest migration in the annals, whether written or recon- 
structed, of man, a new financial oligarchy was bound to arise 
so rapidly as to render his landed aristocracy negligible and cas- 
ually to feed upon and absorb it. Further, he apparently believed 
it possible to establish in actual social institutions a close relation- 
ship between worth and ability on the one hand, and, on the 
other hand, wealth, family, and political influence, whereas all 
history indicates this to be impossible. At the end of his life, he 
still preferred democratic government to any other, but he had 
little hope for democracy. Spiller quotes the following passage 
from a posthumous fragment: 2 "Nevertheless the community 
will live on, suffer, and be deluded; it may even fancy itself 
almost within reach of perfection, but it will live on to be dis- 
*Ibid., pages 315-6. 

appointed. There is no such thing on earth and the only real 
question for the American statesman is, to measure the results 
of different defective systems for the government of the human 
race. We are far from saying that our own, with all its flagrant 
and obvious defects, will be the worst, more especially when con- 
sidered solely in connection with whole numbers; though we 
cannot deny, nor do we wish to conceal, the bitterness of the 
wrongs that are so frequently inflicted by the many on the few. 
This is, perhaps, the worst species of tyranny. He who suffers 
under the arbitrary power of a single despot, or by the selfish 
exactions of a privileged few, is certain to be sustained by the 
sympathies of the masses. But he who is crushed by the masses 
themselves must look beyond the limits of his earthly being for 
consolation and support. The wrongs committed by democracies 
are of the most cruel character; and though wanting in that ap- 
parent violence and sternness that mark the course of law in the 
hands of narrower governments, for it has no need of this se- 
venty, they carry with them in their course all the feelings that 
render injustice and oppression intolerable/' 

Of these wrongs he himself had suffered more than the com- 
mon portion. Out of love for his country and the desire to per- 
petuate her institutions, he had criticized such of her vices as 
appeared to imperil her life, and he had been met with hatred. 
His criticism being unanswerable, and the hatred therefore in- 
tense, he had been libelled in the press, and though for fifteen 
years he had won suit after suit in the courts and had silenced 
his detractors, the press had won the sympathy of the multitude 
and Cooper had lost his public. He had defined for posterity 
the dangers which threatened; and he had established in legal 
precedent that was to endure until late in the century the laws 
of libel and the public rights of the private gentleman; but he 
knew at the end that he could not stay or turn the enchanneled 
torrent of human stupidity, which, when eventually we regard 
it behind us, we know as history. His concern was primarily 
for public morality; it was the concern of the statesman, or of 
the historian, first, and of the artist but secondarily; this concern 
was already obsolescent in America, and Henry Adams found it 


a generation after Cooper's death to be obsolete. Its disappear- 
ance, no less than the disappearance of the theological dogmas 
supporting private morality, contributed in some measure to the 
later difficulties of Henry James. 


The Littlepage novels Satanstoe, The Chainbearer, and The 
Redskins were written to illustrate a thesis: the justice of the 
property-rights of the landed proprietors. But underlying this 
is a more general thesis: the social function of an aristocracy, 
a concept based on the old but dying social organization of New 
York. To illustrate this thesis, he was forced to contrast the vir- 
tues of the aristocracy with the defects of the vulgar; that this 
contrast represented not his own complete view of the two social 
classes thus roughly divided but an arbitrary isolation of qualities 
in each class for purposes of expository effectiveness, we may 
see readily enough in his other novels: in his novels of adven- 
ture, his favbrite characters are drawn from the lower classes, 
and in The Bravo, another thesis novel, this one written to ex- 
hibit the dangers of oligarchy, his heroic figures are drawn from 
the lower classes and his corrupt from the upper. 

Like most novelists of class-struggle, he separated his charac- 
ters pretty sharply into the more or less Calvinistical categories 
of the socially saved and the socially damned. The only Ameri- 
can novel of class-struggle of any importance, and so far as my 
reading extends, to surpass this formula, is The Octopus, by 
Frank Norris; a novel in which the social struggle sets in motion 
and complicates certain dramas of private morality, so that we get 
a novel of a ve?y impressive kind in spite of the illiteracy of two 
thirds of the writing, and in spite of the plunge into Emersonian 
mysticism at the close, in which the author endeavors to cancel 
the drama that he has constructed. Since Cooper is dealing pri- 
marily with manners and not with morals that is, with society 
as such, and not with the salvation of the soul his figures must 
of necessity be offered as representative social types and not as 
moral abstractions like the figures in Hawthorne. 
1 80 

They are types of manners, and not types of morality; they are 
thus closer to the surface of life, to the daily reality which we 
perceive superficially about us; and we are tempted or more 
truly, we are forced to regard them as human beings primarily, 
not as dramatized ideas. But as human beings they are unduly 
simplified, and in their purity of type inheres a certain quality, 
very slight in a few cases, very great in a few, and moderately 
obvious in most, of priggishness or of unreality. Furthermore, the 
dichotomy of Good and Evil in Hawthorne is essentially so seri- 
ous that the extreme concentration upon it which is implicit 
in allegorical simplification appears justified. The corresponding 
concepts in the field of manners, however, the Genteel and the 
Vulgar appear at a considerable remove from the spiritual seri- 
ousness of the Good and the Evil; we can demonstrate certain im- 
perfect relationships between the two pairs of concepts easily 
enough in a rational fashion, but the second pair is derivative 
and therefore inferior, and it is bound to be felt as inferior when 
perceived in action; so that a concentration by Cooper upon the 
second pair of abstractions comparable, though far less intense, 
to the concentration upon the first pair by Hawthorne, is certain 
in itself to create in some degree an atmosphere of priggishness. 
The vigor with which Cooper realizes at least a few characters 
and patterns of action, and the sense with which he leaves us 
when the books have long been read and laid away, of a rich 
and varied way of life, are sufficient evidence of the reality of 
his genius, for these ends are achieved in the face of obstacles. 

This effect of priggishness is sure to be intensified in an era 
like our own, in which the concept of a traditional aristocracy is 
obsolete and even as an historical phenomenon is seldom under- 
stood. For the modern American who has let himself be seduced 
by any of the absolute categories of our own period more es- 
pecially, in this case, of the radical labor movement, since these 
categories are diametrically opposed to those of Cooper an under- 
standing of Cooper, and I mean an understanding of Cooper 
merely as an artist portraying in some measure a life which he 
knew, may prove difficult or even impossible. Cooper's dichotomy 
of the Genteel and the Vulgar may appear to correspond pre- 


cisely to the later dichotomy of the Parasitic and the Productive, 
the emphasis having been shifted from intrinsic qualities to what 
is conceived as material effectiveness. For any modern American, 
an act of sympathetic historical imagination is necessary to under- 
stand Cooper; for the American whose perceptions are governed 
by a scheme as simple as Cooper's, but the exact reverse of it, 
this act will presumably be impossible. 

Because of the simplification, the central figures of the Little- 
page novels the Littlepages and their respective loves were 
doomed to be uninteresting, even if Cooper had not had an 
unqualified penchant for conventional sentimental romance as 
the structural principle in plot. The secondary figures, even 
when employed more or less obviously for illustrative purposes, 
are frequently more successful. The best single creation of the 
Littlepage novels a creation rivalling Natty Bumppo is Jason 
Newcome, the devious and moralizing New Englander. In Sa- 
tanstoe, the secondary and tragic love affair of Guert Ten Eyck 
and of Mary Wallace is moving and suggests complexity and 
fullness of character not found in any other love story in Cooper. 
Guert, Mary Wallace, the loping dominie, Andries Coejemans, 
and in a smaller measure the somewhat melodramatic but still 
effective Aaron Thousandacres, are memorable creations. 

In the first two novels, especially, of the Littlepage trilogy, 
Cooper endeavored to underline certain aspects of New York 
society which he believed deserving of preservation and exten- 
sion; and in the third of the series, The Redskins, he sought 
primarily to demonstrate the opposing evil, the evil of confusing 
the whim of the mob with the principle of democracy, a subject 
with which he dealt in other late novels: in The Crater, in Home 
as Found, and especially in The Ways of the Hour, a novel in 
which is portrayed in a manner of the greatest accuracy so far 
as the social phenomena are concerned, though profoundly un- 
satisfactory as art, the way in which criminal justice may be 
subverted by unrestrained popular meddling. In The Redskins, 
Home as Found, and The Ways of the Hour Cooper is nearly 
at his worst as a novelist his worst, absolutely considered, is the 
initial effort, Precaution, and its nearest rival, perhaps, is Mer 

cedes of Castillefor in these three works, he is not displaying 
a way of life, but is demonstrating assorted vices and his tend- 
ency to overemphasis becomes so extreme as to destroy both plot 
and character. The criticism offered in these books, however, 
is both just and penetrating, and the reader with taste and pa- 
tience can cull from them if he so desires a collection of epigrams 
as sound, as biting, and as numerous as he is likely to find in any 
other three volumes in English. The Monikins, a satirical alle- 
gory on the subject of various social systems, though tiresome in 
the main, offers the same fragmentary rewards, and perhaps in 
a larger measure, in addition to the remarkable summary of the 
life and death of the elder Goldencalf, with which the work 

The Monikins has commonly been regarded as one of the 
worst of Cooper's efforts, and even those who have found it in 
one manner or another interesting have objected to the narrator's 
account of his pedigree and of his childhood, but there is some- 
thing horrible in the account, which, brief and fragmentary as 
the passage may be, is unrivalled in its particular fashion in Eng- 
lish prose. "I have generally considered myself on a level with the 
most ancient gentlemen of Europe, on the score of descent," says 
the narrator, "few families being more clearly traced into the 
mist of time than that of which I am a member. My descent from 
my father is undeniably established by the parish register as well 
as by the will of that person himself, and I believe no man could 
more directly prove the truth of the whole career of his family 
than it is in my power to show that of my ancestor up to the 
hour when he was found, in the second year of his age, crying 
with cold and hunger in the parish of St. Giles, in the city of 
Westminster, and in the United Kingdom of Great Britain. " In 
the same tone of precise and unwavering respect, the career of 
the elder Goldencalf, financial and domestic, and fearful in its 
intense inhumanity, is carried to its close: "The difficult breath- 
ing, haggard countenance, and broken utterance of my father 
struck me with awe. This was the first death-bed by which I had 
ever stood; and the admonishing picture of time passing into 
eternity was indelibly stamped on my memory. It was not only 


a death-bed scene, but it was a family death-bed scene. I know 
not how it was, but I thought my ancestor looked more like the 
Goldencalfs than I had ever seen him look before/' Thomas 
Goldencalf is literally on the brink of eternity throughout the 
short narrative; for, as his son, the supposed narrator, informs 
us, he rose directly and with no antecedents from the obscurity 
of time, and his life was reduced so purely to a single passion, 
one might say to a single perception, that he existed but as a 
silhouette upon the void and sank as directly into the void as he 
had arisen from it. The cold and formal irony of the prose 
achieves at times a metaphysical violence which puts one in 
mind of Pope. 

The Bravo, one of the most important of the novels of social 
criticism, suffers in certain respects by comparison with the first 
two novels of the Littlepage trilogy: no single Italian character is 
realized with the same effect of intimacy as that achieved in the 
best American characters, although no major character, perhaps, 
is quite so simplified as are the representatives of the Littlepage 
family itself /for the conception of The Bravo does not enforce 
such simplification. The protagonist is a more or less normal 
man, endeavoring to maintain his integrity in a struggle with a 
variety of hidden evils. He is essentially active and individual, 
and not a social type, although the subtleties of his surface are 
not rendered with any such perception as that displayed in the 
creation of Jason Newcome and of Guert Ten Eyck. The man- 
ner in which the aristocrats themselves are corrupted by their 
fears of each other the subtle inter-relation and inter-propaga- 
tion among such vices as avarice, desire for power, and fear- 
offers a moral portrait worthy of Hawthorne. 

The stylistic tone of The Bravo is of the slightly sentimental 
variety at the time regarded as indispensable to historical ro- 
mance; this is no doubt a defect, but the tone is at least con- 
sistently maintained, so that once one has become familiar with 
it, one can in a measure forget it, and can appreciate subtleties 
of perception much as in any other style. The fifteenth chapter, 
for example, describing the murder of Antonio, is very impres- 
sive as one comes to it in the actual narrative, but is much less 

impressive if one reads it in isolation. Coming to it from the be- 
ginning of the story, one is not only familiar with the style, but 
one is acutely aware of the symbolic value of the moonlit water, 
and of fragments of action discernible upon it, in this narrative 
of secret and evasive evil. In isolation the passage appears to 
display something of the over-wrought affectation of Poe; in its 
context, the tone is supported, as it is never supported in Poe, 
by a comprehensible theme, so that the details, melodramatic, 
perhaps, if read alone, are sustained by a genuinely dramatic 
significance. The two companion pieces of The Bravo, The 
Heidenmauer and The Headsman, are less remarkable, though 
The Heidenmauer contains a fairly memorable character in the 
Abbot of Limburg. 


In the Leatherstocking Series, as in the other novels of American 
history and of frontier adventure, and as in the sea stories (ex- 
cept The Crater}, we have nothing whatever to do with social 
criticism, or at least nothing of importance. One of the Leather- 
stocking Series, however, The Pioneers, the fourth in the series 
but the first to be written, should be mentioned in connection 
with Satanstoe and The Chainhearer as one of Cooper's three 
most interesting novels of manners; like the first two Littlepage 
novels, it is a portrait of life on the frontier, but in a considerable 
measure of the semi-aristocratic frontiersman. These three works 
should be regarded as a prelude to such works by Mrs. Wharton 
as the four novelettes of the Old New York Series and The 
Age of Innocence; in spite of great defects they have great vigor, 
and as regards the portrayal of their particular place and period 
they have no rivals and must always remain as a part of our his- 
torical literature if as nothing more. 

The inferiority of plot in Cooper to the incidental is tacitly 
recognized by him in the fact that the one figure who unifies all 
five of the Leatherstocking novels is a secondary figure in all of 
them; in each novel he is the practical abettor of the loves of the 
pair about whom the conventional plot is constructed, although 

in The Pathfinder he appears for a time as a rival in love to his 

These novels are familiar to every reader, and comment upon 
them may appear superfluous; nevertheless, familiarity appears 
to have bred in this case a good deal of contempt, and certain 
things, perhaps, need to be stated briefly. 

It is the isolated adventures of Natty, and the continuity of his 
character, that bring the novels to life; although there are other 
excellent characterizations, especially of the residents of the fron- 
tier village of The Pioneers, and of the Indians Mahtoree and 
Hardheart, and of the emigrant family of The Prairie. And here 
we begin to encounter some of the strange paradoxes of Cooper's 
achievement; for if Natty is his greatest single achievement 
and great he is, a great national myth, with a life over and above 
the life of the books in which he appears, a reality surpassing 
that even of an historical figure such as Daniel Boone yet only 
two of these novels, The Pioneers and conceivably The Prairie, 
could rank among Cooper's half dozen best individual novels. 
Furthermore/the best single passage of prose in Cooper is prob- 
ably the seventh chapter of The Deerslayer,. a book which dis- 
plays few other serious merits, and which even as a story purely 
of adventure is far inferior in plot and in movement to half a 
dozen other stories by Cooper. The next best prose in the series, 
and perhaps in Cooper, though this is doubtful, is probably to 
be found in the first and last chapters of The Prairie, heavily 
dramatic as they may conceivably be. The best single plot of 
adventure in Cooper is beyond a doubt that of The Last of the 
Mohicans, but the style in this work is so consistently florid and 
redundant that in spite of the action, in spite of the magnificent 
timing of many scenes, in spite of a certain amount of fairly 
respectable characterization, the book nowhere rises to a level of 
seriousness. It is curious that the tone of conventional romance 
which vitiates a great part of his effort should have accumulated 
so unfortunately here, for there are passages in other books in the 
series which are not only beautiful but beautiful in a restrained 
and classical fashion, and which display great richness of moral 

1 86 

The seventh chapter of The Deerslayer, or more properly its 
first incident, Natty's encounter with the Indian whom he is 
forced to kill, is probably as great an achievement of its length 
as one will find in American fiction outside of Melville. The 
prose is plain and factual, yet by rendering with a kind of bare 
precision the drifting of the canoes, the motion of the water, and 
the caution with which Natty views the edge of the forest, 
Cooper communicates with a power that has rarely been equalled 
the tremendous and impersonal quiet of the virgin American 
wilderness: "The air, for wind it could scarcely be called, was 
still light, it is true, but it had increased a little in the course of 
the night, and as the canoes were mere feathers on the water, 
they had drifted twice the expected distance; and, what was still 
more dangerous, had approached so near the base of the moun- 
tain that here rose precipitously from the eastern shore as to 
render the carols of the birds plainly audible. This was not the 
worst. The third canoe had taken the same direction, and \va^ 
slowly drifting toward a point where it must inevitably touch, 
unless turned aside by a shift of wind or human hands. In other 
respects nothing presented itself to attract attention or to awaken 

One of the canoes goes aground, and Natty must rescue it, in 
spite of the danger to himself, in order to insure the safety of his 
friends. "If anyone had been lying in wait for the arrival of the 
waif, he must be seen, and the utmost caution in approaching 
the shore became indispensable; if no one was in ambush, hurry 
was unnecessary. The point being nearly diagonally opposite the 
Indian encampment, he hoped the last, though the former was 
not only possible but probable; for the savages were prompt in 
adopting all the expedients of their particular modes of warfare, 
and quite likely had many scouts searching the shores for crafts 
to carry them off to the castle. As a glance at the lake from any 
height or projection would expose the smallest object on its sur- 
face, there was little hope that either of the canoes could pass 
unseen; and Indian sagacity needed no instruction to tell which 
way a boat or a log would drift when the direction of the wind 
was known. As Deerslayer drew nearer and nearer to the land, 

,8 7 

the stroke of his paddle grew slower, his eye became more watch- 
ful, and his ears and nostrils almost dilated with the effort to 
detect any lurking danger. 'Twas a trying moment for a novice, 
nor was there the encouragement which even the timid some- 
times feel when conscious of being observed and commended. 
He was entirely alone, thrown on his own resources, and was 
cheered by no friendly eye, emboldened by no encouraging voice. 
Notwithstanding all these circumstances, the most experienced 
veteran in forest warfare could not have behaved better. Equally 
free from recklessness and hesitation, his advance was marked by 
a sort of philosophical prudence that appeared to render him 
superior to all motives but those which were best calculated to 
effect his purpose. Such was the commencement of a career in 
forest exploits that afterward rendered this man, in his way, and 
under the limits of his habits and opportunities, as renowned as 
many a hero whose name has adorned the pages of works more 
celebrated than legends simple as ours can ever become." The 
explicit comment of the historian at the close of this passage is 
one of the greatest triumphs of Cooper's rhetoric; the quietness 
of the prose and of the scene is not impaired, but the prose sud- 
denly takes on a quality of universality and of grandeur such as 
to prepare one for the metaphysical quality of the action shortly 
to follow. 

The Indian in ambush fires and misses, attacks, and then, be- 
ing outwitted by Deerslayer but allowed to escape, retreats to 
cover; Deerslayer is quickly on shore and behind a tree. Then 
commences the series of hesitations on the part of Deerslayer to 
kill this man, hesitations which arouse the wonder and then the 
contempt of the Indian. Deerslayer has never killed a man, yet 
he has embarked upon the career of a professional scout, and 
this Indian is his enemy. His wonder, his hesitation, the infal- 
libility of his instincts and muscular reactions, the immense 
passivity of the morning wilderness, give the scene something of 
the tenderness and wonder of idyllic first love. But this is first 
death, and not first love; and the act must be committed in soli- 
tude and with deliberation. Deerslayer's consciousness of the 
significance of the act which he momently withholds, and the 
1 88 

pure spiritual isolation of the consciousness, the quiet clarity with 
which the whole is rendered, constitute, surely, one of the jnost 
remarkable passages in our literature. 

After some maneuvering, Deerslayer persuades the Indian to 
give up the canoes without bloodshed, or he believes that he per- 
suades him, and then, after a momentary suspicion of treachery, 
he pushes off from shore: ''This distrust, however, seemed to be 
altogether uncalled for, and, as if ashamed to have entertained it, 
the young man averted his look, and stepped carelessly up to 
his boat. Here he began to push the canoe from the shore, and 
to make his other preparations for departing. He might have 
been thus employed a minute, when, happening to turn his face 
toward the land, his quick and certain eye told him at a glance, 
the imminent jeopardy in which his life was placed. The black, 
ferocious eyes of the savage were glancing on him, like those of 
the crouching tiger, through a small opening in the bushes, and 
the muzzle of his rifle seemed already to be opening in a line 
with his own body. 

"Then, indeed, the long practice of Deerslayer as a hunter did 
him good service. Accustomed to fire with the deer on the bound, 
and often when the precise position of the animal's body had in 
a manner to be guessed at, he used the same expedients here. 
To cock and poise his rifle were the acts of a single moment and 
a single motion; then, aiming almost without sighting, he fired 
into the bushes where he knew a body ought to be in order to 
sustain the appalling countenance which alone was visible. There 
was not time to raise the piece any higher or to take a more 
deliberate aim. So rapid were his movements that both parties 
discharged their pieces at the same instant, the concussions min- 
gling in one report. The mountains, indeed, gave back but a 
single echo. Deerslayer dropped his piece, and stood, with head 
erect, steady as one of the pines in the calm of a June morning, 
watching the result, while the savage gave the yell that has be- 
come historical for its appalling influence, leaped through the 
bushes, and came bounding across the open ground, flourishing a 
tomahawk. Still Deerslayer moved not, but stood with his un- 
loaded rifle fallen against his shoulders, while, with a hunter's 


habits, his hands were mechanically feeling for the powder-horn 
and charger. When about forty feet from his enemy, the savage 
hurled his keen weapon; but it was with an eye so vacant, and 
a hand so unsteady and feeble, that the young man caught it as 
it was flying past him. At that instant the Indian staggered and 
fell his whole length on the ground/' We have thus the instan- 
taneous coincidence of intuition and determinant action, and the 
quick rush and ebbing of life, as symbolized by the case with 
which the hatchet falls into the hand of Deerslayer; and there- 
after a brief passage in which the Indian dies in Deerslayer's 
arms at the edge of the lake, a passage in which the quiet of the 
morning is reestablished. One should mention also Deerslayer's 
perception of the opening of the rifle muzzle, a fine detail, by 
means of which his perception of the Indian's aim is communi- 

The skill of this backwoodsman, and the skill as well as other 
characteristics attributed by Cooper to the Indians, are frequently 
derided, but 'probably with small justice. In any environment 
certain particular skills will be generally developed, which are 
foreign to other environments, and the skills required in the 
wilderness are now far away from us and of their nature we can 
have but very small understanding. Yet the feats performed in 
Cooper's novels with the canoe are of no greater moment than 
the feats performed daily on our highways with much more dan- 
gerous engines, sometimes disastrously, often with success; they 
are as nothing compared to the daily feats of the army flyer. We 
should remember, moreover, that if any particular way of life 
long exists, or even if any particular exercise is long practiced 
with assiduity, there will inevitably arise, once or twice or oc- 
casionally more often in a generation, an individual of a skill 
such as far to surpass the powers of credible description, The 
boxer of genius, or even the billiard-player of genius, may per- 
form feats which if recounted in detail would seem far less plau- 
sible than the most extraordinary feats of Leatherstocking. 

Furthermore, as to feats of woodmanship, the historic feats of 
the partisan leader, Rogers, as described by the meticulous Park- 


man in Montcalm and Wolfe, surpass anything imagined by 
Cooper. And Parkman, who objects to Cooper's treatment of 
Indian character, especially in regard to the capacity delineated 
for heroic action and for love at a higher level than that of 
physical passion, yet recounts in The Conspiracy of Pontiac the 
case of a young Indian who followed his white mistress back to 
the edge of the settlements when she had been captured by a 
marauding band of whites, in order to be with her as long as pos- 
sible and to hunt for her; and his account of Pontiac himself 
establishes that remarkable Ottawa not only as a man of genius 
but as thoroughly capable of heroic action. Our historic knowl- 
edge of Tecumseh, of King Philip, of Massassoit, of the humane 
and heroic Canonchet, should justify Cooper beyond all question 
at least as regards the general outlines of his characterization. 
That such characters were exceptional among the Indians goes 
without saying, but they would have been exceptional anywhere; 
and that there were aspects of Indian life on which Cooper 
seldom dwells is equally certain, but it is also true that the houses 
of Shakespeare's London were in general, drafty, smoky, dirty, 
infected with disease, and full of vermin, and Shakespeare is not 
in general blamed for dealing primarily with the spiritual prob- 
lems of such men as Macbeth and Coriolanus. 

Anyone who will take the trouble to acquaint himself with the 
works of Parkman and anyone who will not is to be commis- 
erated in general and distrusted in particular as a commentator 
on certain aspects of American literature and history or anyone 
who will read a dozen odd journals of life in the wilderness, will 
scarcely, I imagine, object very seriously to this aspect of Cooper 
on purely factual grounds. Cooper errs not in the plausibility of 
his facts, but in relying so heavily for the maintenance of inter- 
est on so limited a range of facts, and frequently in the sentimen- 
tal and inflated redundancy with which the facts are rendered; 
and so far as the Indians are concerned, this redundancy is not 
without its verisimilitude, whatever we may think of its absolute 
merits as style, for the eloquence of the Indians in their more 
formal and heroic moments, as we find it recorded by those who 


knew them intimately and in their primitive condition, is not 
as remote from the redundant passages of Cooper as one might 
at first glance suppose. 

This particular defect of style damages white and Indian char- 
acter about equally, so far as its effect on the modern reader is 
concerned and indeed, though the Indian, historically consid- 
ered, may actually have employed a roughly similar style on cer- 
tain occasions, one may reasonably protest that in the interests 
of true eloquence he should not have done so but in some of 
the novels, in which the style is not pushed to the appalling 
limits reached in The Last of the Mohicans, one becomes, as I 
have said in discussing The Bravo, more or less accustomed to it, 
and forgets it. This is largely true of The Wept of Wish-ton- 
Wish, a novel containing three of Coopers best Indian Char- 
acters, all of them based on historic Indians: Uncas, the Pequot 
or Mohegan, who betrayed his chieftain, Sassacus, sold himself 
to the English, and helped in the destruction of his own people, 
first in the Pequot War, and later, as an old man, in King Philip's 
War; Philip, or Metacom, the Wampanoag; and Canonchet, the 
Narraganset. One of the better scenes in Cooper, in spite of the 
sentimental rhetoric is that in which Uncas, who feels himself 
to be judged a traitor by his captive Canonchet, whose father, 
Miantonomo, he had murdered years before, endeavors to break 
the moral character of Canonchet by subtle spiritual torture be- 
fore murdering him. The conception of Canonchet's white wife, 
who recovers only at the moment before death her memory of 
childhood and her childish fear of the forest and of the Indian 
as the symbols of darkness and of evil, is a conception which 
deserved a more successful rendering, but which is rendered with 
sufficient success to merit more appreciation than it has received. 3 
This novel is notable also for certain passages of historical ex- 
position, especially in the earlier chapters; passages in which 
Cooper appears as one of the last representatives of the great 
tradition of formal historical narrative, of which Hume, Gibbon, 
and Macaulay are the masters. The passages are brief and scat- 

8 Parkman recounts in Pontiac, Chapter XXVIII, an historical incident 
closely though incompletely resembling this. 


tered; they show the tradition in a state of decay, and corroded 
by sentiment; but they are still in the great tradition, and as prose 
they probably surpass most passages of comparable length to be 
found in Prescott or even in Parkman; they are a moving, if 
melancholy, spectacle. 

One other novel of frontier adventure, The Oak Openings, 
deserves particular attention, if only because of its extraordinary 
difference from the other novels on similar subjects, As a story 
of simple adventure, it is one of Cooper's best; as a portrait of 
the Indian in his more familiar and less heroic moments, it is 
both convincing and amusing and has no parallel in Cooper or 
elsewhere in our literature. The scenes in which the assembled 
chieftains discuss the anthropological theories of the errant clergy- 
man and conclude that the Indians are not descended from the 
lost tribes of Israel are especially admirable. "I am a Pottawat- 
tamie," says Crowsfeather. "My brothers know that tribe. It is 
not a tribe of Jews, but a tribe of Injins. It is a great tribe. It 
never was lost. It cannot be lost. No tribe better knows all the 
paths, and all the best routes to every point where it wishes to 
go. It is foolish to say you can lose a Pottawattamie. A duck 
would be as likely to lose itself as a Pottawattamie. I do not speak 
for the Ottawas; I speak for the Pottawattamies. . . . We are 
not lost; we are not Jews. I have done." 


In addition to the novels which I have mentioned and a few 
others of similar nature, there remain a somewhat miscellaneous 
lot of novels superficially of a class in that they are all novels 
of adventure and all save two, The Spy and Lionel Lincoln, of 
adventure at sea. 

The Spy, a very early and fairly popular work, is a second 
rate novel of adventure, as are also Homeward Bound? The Pilot, 
and The Two Admirals. The Red Rover, a sea story, is probably 
the best tale of adventure, questions of style aside, to be found 
in Cooper except for The Last of the Mohicans, but like The 
Last of the Mohicans it has few other merits. Afloat and Ashore, 


and its sequel, Miles Wallingford, combine fair sea-adventure, 
one of the best incidents being based on an actual occurrence 
recounted by Irving in his Astoria, with a fairly pleasant and 
moderately sentimental portrait of early New York manners. 
Jack Tier is a novel of sentimental adventure at sea which is 
chiefly remarkable for the portrait of the extraordinary figure 
from whom the book takes its title; among the sea stories, it has 
something of the casual charm displayed by The Oak Openings 
among the novels of the wilderness. The Sea Lions, though dif- 
fuse and full of irrelevancies, offers a portrait of Yankee avarice 
in a struggle with death in the antarctic circle, which deserved 
a more careful treatment. 

Three other stones Lionel Lincoln, Wing-and-Wing,. and es- 
pecially The Water-Witch are remarkable for their rhetorical 
experiments, and display Cooper in a capacity in which he has 
never been seriously studied or even regarded. 

In Lionel Lincoln, the character in connection with whom the 
experimental rhetoric is most often successful, is Polwarth, a 
British officer stationed in Boston, a gentleman by birth and 
courageous by nature, but stout, overfond of eating, and some- 
what talkative. Polwarth must beyond any question be the proto- 
type of W. G. Simms' Porgy, and though Cooper makes less 
use of Polwarth than Simms makes of his southerner, Cooper's 
portrait is in some ways the more effective. Polwarth speaks a 
species of semi-Elizabethan prose which is not without its wit 
and its poetry, and of which the very affectation has a real stylis- 
tic charm. The following passage, taken from the ninth chapter, 
is descriptive of the removal of the British troops from Boston the 
night before the battle of Lexington : 

"Polwarth had established himself by the side of Lionel, much 
to the ease of his limbs, and as they moved slowly into the light, 
all those misgivings which had so naturally accompanied his 
musings on the difficulties of a partisan irruption, vanished be- 
fore the loveliness of the time, and possibly before the quietude 
of the action. 

" There are moments when I could fancy the life of a sailor/ 
he said, leaning indolently back, and playing with one hand in 


the water. This pulling about in boats is easy work, and must 
be capital assistance for a heavy digestion, inasmuch as it fur- 
nishes air with as little violent exercise as may be. Your marine 
should lead a merry life of it!' 

" They are said to murmur at the clashing of their duties with 
those of the sea-officers/ said Lionel; 'and I have often heard 
them complain of a want of room to make use of their legs/ 

" 'Humph!' ejaculated Polwarth; 'the leg is a part of a man 
for which I see less actual necessity than for any other portion 
of his frame. I often think there has been a sad mistake in the 
formation of the animal; as, for instance, one can be a very good 
waterman, as you see, without legs a good fiddler, a first-rate 
tailor, a lawyer, a doctor, a parson, a very tolerable cook, and in 
short, anything but a dancing-master. I see no use in a leg unless 
it be to have the gout at any rate, a leg of twelve inches is as 
good as one a mile long, and the saving might be appropriated 
to the nobler parts of the animal; such as the brain and the 

" Tou forget the officer of light-infantry/ said Lionel, laugh- 
ing- ^ 

" Tou might give him a couple of inches more; though as 
everything in this wicked world is excellent only by comparison, 
it would amount to the same thing, and on my system a man 
would be just as fit for the light-infantry without, as with legs; 
and he would get rid of a good deal of troublesome manoeuver- 
ing, especially of this new exercise. It would then become a de- 
lightful service, Leo; for it may be said to monopolize all the 
poetry of military life, as you may see. Neither the imagination 
nor the body can require more than we enjoy at this moment, and 
of what use, I would ask, are our legs? if anything, they are in- 
cumbrances in this boat. Here we have a soft moon, and softer 
seats smooth water, and a stimulating air on one side fine coun- 
try, which, though but faintly seen, is known to be fertile and 
rich to abundance; and on the other a picturesque town, stored 
with condiments of every climate even those rascally privates 
look mellowed by the moonbeams, with their scarlet coats and 
glittering arms! . . . Where now are your companies of the 


lines; your artillery and dragoons; your engineers and staff! night- 
capped and snoring to a man, while we enjoy here the very des- 
sert of existence I wish I could hear a nightingale!' " 

This is obviously less excellent than Falstaff, but on the other 
hand it does not really endeavor to compete with Falstaff, and, 
having a minor excellence of its own, should survive the com- 
parison. I should like to insist that here, as in other scattered 
passages of Cooper, there is a prose possessing at once an au- 
thentic poetic perception and a rhetorical procedure both ingen- 
ious and controlled; that these scattered passages are frequently 
of sufficient length to be impressive; that among them there is 
considerable variety as regards the kind of prose employed; and 
that they display a stylist superior to any other in America and 
I do not except Hawthornebefore Melville, one who in some 
respects foreshadows Melville, and one who can still be examined 
with pleasure and with profit. 

In Wing-and-Wing, Cooper writes a story of his favorite type 
of sailing vessel, a light and elusive fugitive from authority; and 
he places the vessel in the marine setting which of all he regarded 
as the most beautiful and the most ethereal, the Mediterranean. 
The plot, as in nearly all of his tales of adventure, is one of pur- 
suit and flight, but in these conditions the pursuit and flight 
acquire an air of illusion which at a few moments, especially in 
the discussion of solipsistic philosophy which takes place be- 
tween the vice-governor of Elba and his podesta while halfway 
down the ship's ladder of a British cruiser, all but evaporates into 

Wing-and-Wing, though occasionally amusing or even beauti- 
ful, is less certain of its intention than the earlier novel of a some- 
what similar kind, The Water-Witch. The action of The Water- 
Witch is extremely unreal, and the unreality, not to say the im- 
possibility of much of it, would be preposterous did Cooper not 
utilize this very quality. It has the plot, entrances, exits, abduc- 
tions, and mysteries of a comic opera; and the style is adjusted 
to the plot in a manner at once brilliant and meticulous. Plot 
and character alike have the unreality, but the consistency within 
themselves, of the plot and character, let us say, of Volpone; and 

Cooper endeavors to achieve a style not dissimilar, so far as the 
limits of prose permit, to the style of Jonson's dramatic verse. This 
novel, though imperfect artistically, is imperfect in minor ways; 
questions of scope aside, it is probably Cooper's ablest piece of 
work, as it is certainly one of the most brilliant, if scarcely one of 
the most profound, masterpieces of American prose. 

The numerous quotations from Shakespeare employed in this 
work give a clue to the Elizabethan models for the prose; and if 
they did not, there would be clues sufficiently obvious scattered 
throughout the prose itself. The following commentary, for ex- 
ample is spoken by the incredible Thomas Tiller: " 'Every craft 
has its allotted time, like a mortal/ continued the inexplicable 
mariner of the India-shawl. If she is to die a sudden death, there 
is your beam-end and stern-way, which takes her into the grave 
without funeral service or parish prayers; your dropsy is being 
water-logged; gout and rheumatism kill like a broken back and 
loose joints; indigestion is a shifting cargo, with guns adrift; the 
gallows is a bottomry-bond, with lawyers' fees; while fire, drown- 
ing, death by religious melancholy, and suicide, are a careless 
gunner, sunken rocks, false lights, and a lubberly captain/ " 

The best prose, however, is to be found where the imitation 
of rhetorical forms is not so close, but where the intention of 
schematization is equally marked. The two most successful char- 
acters, from the point of view of one who seeks this particular 
quality, are the loquacious Dutch Alderman, Van Beverout, and 
his taciturn and aristocratic young friend, Oloff Van Staats, the 
Patroon of Kinderhook, the former as a commentator on the 
action and on life at large, and the latter as one providing much 
food for comment. To the reader who does not find a certain 
pleasure in the texture of the prose in which the meditations of 
the Alderman are couched, the Alderman must needs be very 
tiresome; but his reveries and his commercial imagery possess a 
hard and clear, if somewhat baroque and elaborate, beauty, 
which, though it does not lend itself convincingly to brief quota- 
tion, is fairly impressive in the text. 

The essential difficulty in connection with these rhetorical ex- 
cursions resides simply in the fact that the subject is never ade- 


quate to permit the extraction from the rhetoric its Full possi- 
bilities, so that we have a species of lyricism, which, though real 
enough, is frequently all but verbal or even syntactical; we have 
something approaching pure rhetoric. Cooper conceived a comic- 
opera plot to provide the motive for his poetry; in Moby Dick, 
on the other hand, the plot is the plot of an epic, and not only 
are the possibilities of the rhetoric exhausted, but the rhetoric 
has greater possibilities. 


If we except The Water-Witch, a minor but original master- 
piece, not flawless, perhaps, but still a unit, we find Cooper to 
be essentially a man of fragments; it is likely that the best part 
of him is in the fragments, moreover, and not in The Water- 
Witch. He embodies a social ideal that in his own lifetime was 
so far gone in decay that his defense of it cost him his reputation, 
and that it may scarcely be said to have survived him to the extent 
of two decades. He displays at his best a rhetorical grandeur of a 
kind cognate with his social ideals, but habitual rather than 
understood, and commonly collapsing for lack of support from his 
action; that is, he displays a great traditional moral sense cor- 
roded by the formulary romantic sentiment of his own period, 
and apparently with no realization that the two are incompatible. 
On a few occasions he displays great vigor of conception, as in 
the creation of such plots as The Sea Lions and The Wept of 
Wish-ton-Wish, as in the creation of such characters as Leather- 
stocking and Jason Newcome, as in the residual feeling of inti- 
macy with which he leaves one, from perhaps a half-dozen of 
novels, with life in frontier and provincial New York. This is a 
vigor which has little to do with rhetoric, or at least has to do with 
it but seldom, and which frequently survives a great deal of bad 
rhetoric: the figure of Leatherstocking emerges from the debris 
of the five novels in which he was created, independent, au- 
thentic, and unforgettable. For the American who desires a polite 
education in his own literature, the five novels of the Leather- 
stocking series are indispensable, as are the first two Littlepagc 

novels, The Bravo, and The Water-Witch. For the American 
who desires an education historical as well as literary, and richly 
literary instead of superficially, the entire work should be ex- 
humed. It is a mass of fragments, no doubt; but the fragments are 
those of a civilization. 


and The Problems of Moral Navigation 

"The ribs and terrors of the whale 

Arched over me a dismal gloom. . . ." 

Father Maple's hymn, in MOBY DICK 

IN Pierre, Melville remarks: "Fortunately for the felicity of the 
Dilettante in Literature, the horrible allegorical meanings of the 
Inferno lie not on the surface." We naturally desire to shelter 
the dilettante as far as possible; but when he obscures a writer of 
Melville's dimensions for three quarters of a century, we begin to 
find him an obstacle in our own paths. The field of Melville 
criticism is fa* more heartening than it was thirty years ago, for 
there is much activity; the activity, unfortunately, is for the 
greater part desperately confused. If one is bent on an under- 
standing of Melville, his greatest work, Moby Dick, is the most 
complete statement of his subject; 1 two unsuccessful works, 
Pierre and The Confidence Man, come next in this particular 
respect. I shall therefore begin with Moby Dick. 

The symbolism of Moby Dick is based on the antithesis of the 
sea and the land: the land represents the known, the mastered, 
in human experience; the sea, the half-known, the obscure region 
of instinct, uncritical feeling, danger, and terror. 

"Yea, foolish mortals, Noah's flood is not yet subsided; two 
thirds of the fair world it yet covers. 

"Wherein differ the sea and the land, that a miracle upon one 

1 In my remarks on the symbolism of Moby Dick, I am indebted for a good 
many details to an unpublished thesis by Achilles Holt, done at Stanford Uni- 
versity. Mr. Holt examines the subject very minutely, and I have used only a 
small part of his material; his thesis ought to be published. On the other hand, 
I have added a good deal of my own, and I differ radically with Mr. Holt as to 
his interpretation of the central theme, that is, in regard to the significance of 
Ahab's character and actions. 


is not a miracle upon the other? Preternatural terrors rested upon 
the Hebrews, when under the feet of Korah and his company 
the live ground opened and swallowed them up for ever; yet not 
a modern sun ever sets, but in precisely the same manner the live 
sea swallows up ships and crews. 

"But not only is the sea such a foe to man who is alien to it, 
but it is also a fiend to its own offspring; worse than the Persian 
host who murdered his own guests; sparing not the creatures 
which itself hath spawned. Like a savage tigress that overlays her 
own cubs, so the sea dashes even the mightiest whales against 
the rocks, and leaves them there side by side with the split wrecks 
of ships. No mercy, no power but its own controls it. Panting 
and snorting like a mad battle steed that has lost its rider, the 
masterless ocean overruns the globe. 

"Consider the subtleness of the sea; how its most dreaded crea- 
tures glide under the water, unapparent for the most part, and 
treacherously hidden beneath the loveliest tints of azure. Con- 
sider also the devilish brilliance and beauty of many of its most 
remorseless tribes, as the dainty embellished shape of many 
species of sharks. Consider once more the universal cannibalism 
of the sea, all whose creatures prey upon each other, carrying 
on eternal war since the world began. 

"Consider all this; and then turn to this green, gentle, and 
most docile earth. Consider them both, the sea and the land; and 
do you not find a strange analogy to something in yourself? For 
as this appalling ocean surrounds the verdant land, so in the soul 
of man there lies one insular Tahiti, full of peace and joy, but 
encompassed by all the horrors of the half known life. God help 
thee! Push not off from that isle, thou canst never return!" 

The ocean is the home of demons and symbols of evil too nu- 
merous to mention. It is the home especially of Moby Dick, the 
white whale, the chief symbol and spirit of evil; it is also the 
home of the great white squid, chaotic and formless, the symbol 
of chance in life: "A vast pulpy mass, furlongs in length and 
breadth, of a glancing cream-color, lay floating on the water; in- 
numerable long arms radiating from its center, and curling and 
twisting like a nest of anacondas, as if blindly to catch at any hap- 


less object within reach. No perceptible face or front did it have; 
no conceivable token of either sensation or instinct; but un- 
dulated there on the billows, an unearthly, formless, chance-like 
apparition of life/* 

Pip, the little negro boy, falls overboard from a whale boat; 
that is, he is immersed in the sea. As a result, and after his rescue, 
he is mad. In the chapter entitled The Mast-head, Ishmael speaks 
of his own contemplation of the sea from aloft, where he had 
been sent as a look-out: ". . . lulled into such an opium-like list- 
lessness of vacant unconscious revery is this absent-minded youth 
by the blending cadence of waves with thoughts, that at last he 
loses his identity; takes the mystic ocean at his feet for the visible 
image of that deep, blue, bottomless soul, pervading mankind 
and nature; and every strange, half-seen, gliding beautiful thing 
that eludes him; every dimly discovered, uprising fin of some 
undiscernible form, seems to him the embodiment of those elu- 
sive thoughts that only people the soul by continuously flitting 
through it. In this enchanted mood thy spirit ebbs away to 
whence it came; becomes diffused through time and space; like 
Cranmer's sprinkled Pantheistic ashes, forming at last a part of 
every shore the round globe over. 

'There is no life in thee now, except that rocking life im- 
parted by a gentle rolling ship; by her, borrowed from the sea; 
by the sea from the inscrutable tides of God. But while this sleep, 
this dream, is on ye, move your foot or hand an inch; slip your 
hold at all; and your identity comes back in horror. Over Des- 
cartian vortices you hover. And perhaps, at midday, in the fairest 
weather, with one half-throttled shriek you drop through that 
transparent air into the summer sea, no more to rise for ever. 
Heed it well, ye Pantheists!" 

The relationship of man to the known and to the half known, 
however, is not a simple and static one; he cannot merely stay 
on land, or he will perish of imperception, but must venture on 
the sea, without losing his relationship to the land; we have, in 
brief, the relationship of principle to perception, or, in other 
words, the problem of judgment. This is made clear in the invo- 
cation to Bulkington, a helmsman even more memorable than 


Palinurus, in the chapter entitled The Lee Shore: 'When on 
that shivering winter's night, the Pequod thrust her vindictive 
bows into the cold malicious waves, whom should I see standing 
at her helm but Bulkington! I looked with sympathetic awe and 
fearfulness upon the man, who in mid-winter just landed from 
a four years' dangerous voyage, could so unrestingly push off 
again for still another tempestuous term. The land seemed scorch- 
ing to his feet. Wonderfullest things are ever the unmentionable; 
deep memories yield no epitaphs; this six-inch chapter is the 
stoneless grave of Bulkington. Let me only say that it fared vvith 
him as with the storm-tossed ship that miserably drives along the 
leeward land. The port would fain give succor; the port is pitiful; 
in the port is safety, comfort, hearthstone, supper, warm blankets, 
friends, all that's kind to our mortalities. But in that gale, the 
port, the land, is that ship's direst jeopardy; she must fly all hos- 
pitality; one touch of land, though it but graze the keel, would 
make her shudder through and through. With all her might she 
crowds all sail off shore; in so doing fights 'gainst the very winds 
that fain would blow her homeward; seeks all the lashed seas' 
landlessness again; for refuge's sake forlornly rushing into peril; 
her only friend her bitterest foe! 

"Know ye, now, Bulkington? Glimpses do ye seem to see of 
that mortally intolerable truth; that all deep, earnest thinking is 
but the intrepid effort of the soul to keep the open independence 
of her sea; while the wildest winds of heaven and earth conspire 
to cast her on the treacherous, slavish shore? 

"But as in landlessness alone resides the highest truth, shore- 
less, indefinite as God so, better is it to perish in that howling 
infinite, than be ingloriously dashed upon the lee, even if that 
were safety! For worm-like, then, oh! who would craven crawl 
to land! Terrors of the terrible! is all this agony so vain? Take 
heart, take heart, O Bulkington! Bear thee grimly, demigod! Up 
from the spray of thy ocean-perishingstraight up leaps thy 

It should be observed that this passage is addressed to a helms- 
man, governed by the laws of his calling, and obeying the com- 
mands of a navigator, one who guides the ship with reference 


to the position of the land. Symbolically, the passage represents 
the process of living by judgment; that is by perception of in- 
dividual, shifting, and chaotic phenomena, but by perception 
trained in principle, in abstraction, to the point where it is able 
to find its way amid the chaos of the particular. Ahab is ulti- 
mately betrayed to his end by the white whale, who is the spirit 
of evil, in the farthest Pacific, after destroying his quadrant (the 
instrument which gives him his mathematical position upon the 
ocean), after having his compass needle reversed by a storm (a 
warning that he should turn about and retrace his way), after the 
snapping of his log-line (which enabled him to gauge his posi- 
tion roughly), and after the sinking of the life-buoy and the 
caulking of Queequeg's coffin to take its place. 

With these basic ideas, and these few illustrative passages 
clearly in mind, we may follow the details of the book with great 

Ishmael, having decided to go to sea, notes the attraction 
which the sea possesses for landsmen : "Circumambulate the city 
of a dreamy Sabbath afternoon. Go from Corlears Hook to Coen- 
ties Slip, and from there by Whitehall, northward. What do you 
see? Posted like silent sentinels all around the town, stand thou- 
sands upon thousands of mortal men fixed in ocean reveries. 
Some leaning against the spiles; some seated upon the pier-heads; 
some looking over the bulwarks of ships from China; some high 
aloft in the rigging, as if striving to get a still better seaward 
peep. But these are all landsmen; of week-days pent up in lath 
and plaster tied to counters, nailed to benches, clinched to desks. 
How then is this? Are the green fields gone? What do they here? 

"But look! here come more crowds, pacing straight for the 
water, and seemingly bound for a dive. Strange! Nothing will 
content them but the extremest limit of the land; loitering under 
the shady lee of yonder warehouses will not suffice. No. They 
must get just as nigh the water as they possibly can without fall- 
ing in. . . ." 

Ishmael leaves New York for New Bedford, arrives at night, 
and seeks an inn. Since he is low in funds, he seeks the cheapest 
inns, which are nearest the water-front, and his approach to water 

is represented as an approach to chaos, death, and hell. Ishmael 
proceeds through dismal streets, stumbles into a negro church, 
and then comes to The Spouter Inn, kept by Peter Coffin, a jux- 
taposition of names which gives us our first explicit hint of one 
of the two major symbolisms of the whale: death and evil. And 
in the third chapter, we are given a clue to both meanings, for 
the sailors' bar is over-arched by the jawbone of a whale; the 
symbolism of this passage is clear, and the description is horribly 

"Entering that gable-ended Spouter Inn, you found yourself 
in a wide, low, straggling entry with old-fashioned wainscots, re- 
minding one of the bulwarks of some condemned old craft. . . . 

"The opposite wall of this entry was hung all over with a 
heathenish array of monstrous clubs and spears. Some were 
thickly set with glittering teeth resembling ivory saws; others 
were tufted with knots of human hair; and one was sickle-shaped, 
with a vast handle sweeping round like the segment made in the 
new-mown grass by a long-armed mower. You shuddered as you 
gazed, and wondered what monstrous cannibal and savage could 
ever have gone a death-harvesting with such a hacking, horrify- 
ing implement. Mixed with these were rusty old whaling lances 
and harpoons all broken and deformed. . . . 

"Crossing this dusty entry, and on through yon low-arched 
way cut through what in old times must have been a great cen- 
tral chimney with fire-places all round you enter the public 
room. A still duskier place is this, with such low ponderous beams 
above, and such old wrinkled planks beneath, that you would 
almost fancy you trod some old craft's cockpits, especially of such 
a howling night, when this corner-anchored old ark rocked so 
furiously. On one side stood a long, low, shelf-like table covered 
with cracked glass cases, filled with dusty rarities gathered from 
this wide world's remotest nooks. Projecting from the farther 
angle of the room stands a dark-looking den the bar a rude 
attempt at a right whale's head. Be that how it may, there stands 
the vast arched bone of the whale's jaw, so wide a coach might 
almost drive beneath it. Within are shabby shelves, ranged round 
with old decanters, bottles, flasks; and in those jaws of swift de- 


struction, like another cursed Jonah (by which name indeed they 
call him) bustles a little withered old man, who, for their money, 
dearly sells the sailors deliriums and death." 

It is at this inn that Ishmael meets his future boon-companion, 
Queequeg, a tattooed cannibal, whose head, in the half-light, re- 
sembles a mildewed skull. The harpooneers on the voyage all 
turn out to be savages: the first three, Queequeg, the Pacific 
islander, Daggoo, the African negro, and Tashtego the Gay Head 
Indian, represent the basic pagan virtues of strength and accu- 
racy, both muscular and instinctive, and of absolute fidelity, but 
below the level of reason, so that they are governed unquestion- 
ingly by the damned Ahab and do his bidding to the end: when 
the ship finally sinks to perdition, Tashtego is nailing a sky-hawk, 
a piece of heaven, to the mast, to carry it down with him. 

After a few minor adventures, Ishmael finds his way to Father 
Mapple's church, inspects the memorial tablets for whalemen 
lost at sea, and speculates on the horrible implications of death, 
especially upon the universal and ineradicable feeling among 
men that death is essentially and profoundly evil. The reasoning 
implied here is the same as that developed fully in the great chap- 
ter on the whiteness of the whale; namely, that this instinctive 
knowledge of evil and demonism is trustworthy and is embedded 
in the race as a remnant of an earlier and fuller knowledge: "In 
what eternal, unstirring paralysis, and deadly, hopeless trance, 
yet lies antique Adam who died sixty round centuries ago; how 
is it that we still refuse to be comforted for those who we never- 
theless maintain are dwelling in unspeakable bliss; why all the 
living so strive to hush all the dead; wherefore but the rumor of 
the knocking of a tomb will terrify a whole city. All these things 
are not without their meanings/' 

Father Mapple preaches on Jonah, and the whale is the symbol 
of hell and death. The hymn contains the essence of the sermon: 

The ribs and terrors of the whale, 

Arched over me a dismal gloom, 
While all Gods sunlit waves rolled \>y y 

And left me deepening down to doom. 


1 saw the opening maw of hell, 

With endless pains and sorrows there; 

Which none hut they that feel can tell 
Oh, I was plunging to despair. 

In hlack distress, 1 called my God, 

When I could scarce believe him mine, 

He howed his ear to my complaints- 
No more the whale did me confine. 

With speed he flew to my relief, 

As on a radiant dolphin borne; 
Awful, yet bright as lightning, shone 

The face of my Deliverer God. 

My song forever shall record 

That terrible that joyful hour; 
I give the glory to my God, 

His all the mercy and the power. 

Jonah, having sinned, is given a foretaste of hell, and then he 
repents, and God delivers him; "and Jonah, bruised and beaten 
his ears, like two seashells, still multitudinously murmuring 
of the ocean Jonah did the Almighty's bidding." But so Ahab 
did not, and Ahab was damned. 

They proceed a little farther to sea; that is, to the island of 
Nantucket, from which they plan to ship. Nantucket is repre- 
sented as the very essence of the New England sea-coast, the 
fishiest of fishing towns. Ishmael is excited with his coming ad- 
venture, and the cod and clam chowders of Mistress Hussey 
render him momentarily delirious: "But look, Queequeg, ain't 
that a live eel in your bowl? Where's your harpoon?" Even the 
landlord's cow appears a trifle tipsy: "I saw Hosea's brindled 
cow feeding on fish remnants, and marching along the sand with 
each foot in a cod's decapitated head, looking very slipshod, I 
assure ye." 

Ishmael and Queequeg sign to ship on the Pequod, a Nan- 


tucket whaler commanded by Captain Ahab, and of which the 
retired captains Peleg and Bildad are part owners. Queequeg's 
island divinity, whom he carries about with him, had communi- 
cated to Queequeg that Ishmael was fated to choose the boat on 
which they were fated to sail, and thus was the matter done. Im- 
mediately after signing, they receive a warning from Bildad: 
"Meanwhile Captain Bildad sat earnestly and steadfastly eyeing 
Queequeg, and at last rising solemnly and fumbling in the huge 
pockets of his broad-skirted drab coat, took out a bundle of tracts, 
and selecting one entitled, The Latter Day Coming; or No Time 
to Lose/ placed it in Queequeg's hands, and then grasping them 
and the book in both his, looked earnestly into his eyes, and said, 
'Son of darkness, I must do my duty by thee; I am part owner of 
this ship and feel concerned for the souls of all its crew; if thou 
still clingest to thy pagan ways, which I sadly fear, I beseech thee, 
remain not for aye a Belial bondsman. Spurn the idol Bell, and 
the hideous dragon; turn from the wrath to come; mind thine eye, 
I say; oh! goodness gracious! steer clear of the fiery pit!' " The 
grotesque combination of the familiar and the terrible in this 
passage is due to the fact that a common and somewhat ludicrous 
man and action are utilized to recall symbolic meanings of which 
the actors are unaware but which the reader supposedly has 
fathomed. The ominous humor of other scenes in the early parts 
of the book, especially that relating to the two inns and the first 
meeting with Queequeg, is of the same kind. Bildad's outburst, 
like Father Mapple's sermon, is one of the many unheeded warn- 
ings with which the progress of the book is marked. 

After they set sail, the mates are introduced and described. 
They represent various levels of normal human attitudes toward 
physical and spiritual danger, the highest being that of Starbuck, 
the first mate, who represents the critical intelligence: "Starbuck 
was no crusader after perils; in him courage was not a sentiment; 
but a thing simply useful to him, and always at hand upon all 
mortally practical occasions. . . . For, thought Starbuck, I am 
here in this critical ocean to kill whales for my living, and not to 
be killed by them for theirs; and that hundreds of men had been 
so killed Starbuck well knew. What doom was his own father's? 

Where in the bottomless deeps could he find the torn limbs of his 
brother?" Starbuck's desperate effort to turn Ahab from his pur- 
pose, and, after his failure, his submission to Ahab, is thus a 
major crisis in the book; it represents the unsuccessful rebellion 
of sanity and morality against a dominant madness. 

Ahab himself has lost a leg to Moby Dick, the white whale, on 
a previous voyage, and has set out on this voyage with the secret 
intention of vengeance, in spite of the fact that he owes a pri- 
mary allegiance to the interests of his owners. As the whale repre- 
sents death and evil, Ahab's ivory leg represents the death that 
has become a part of the living man as a result of his struggle 
with evil; it is the numb wisdom which is the fruit of experience. 
Stubb displeases Ahab and dreams that Ahab kicks him with the 
ivory leg; Stubb meditates vengeance, but he eventually con- 
cludes that it is an honor to be kicked by the ivory leg of a great 
man, When Ahab meets another captain at sea who has an ivory 
right arm as a result of a similar accident, and when the captain 
in question extends his dead arm in greeting, Ahab hoists his 
ivory leg and crosses the arm with it. 

Although these Nantucket sea-otticers are nominally Quakers, 
they have more of the Calvinist in their make-up than of the 
Friend, and Melville treats them in more or less Calvinistic 
terms; they are, says Melville, "Quakers with a vengeance." The 
Calvinist, though he believes that every phenomenon in the uni- 
verse is decreed by God, though he believes that good works are 
of no value toward salvation, yet believes, sometimes as a theolo- 
gian, sometimes merely as a practitioner of traditional modes of 
speech who is too uncritical to be aware of discrepancies, that 
man is morally responsible to God; and, if he is wise enough 
not to attempt to resolve this contradiction, having once discov- 
ered it, consigns it to the plane of Absolute Understanding, eter- 
nally unattainable by man. Jonathan Edwards elaborates this 
somewhat by separating, in effect, the predestined and sinning 
will from the understanding soul; so that the soul, conceived 
for the moment as pure understanding, may observe its own 
actions, which it cannot avoid committing, and approve its own 
damnation. It is in some such terms as these that Ahab is con- 


ceived. There are many passages in the book indicating the 
theme of predestination; the most striking occur in the forty- 
ninth chapter: 

". . . it almost seemed that while he himself was marking 
out lines and courses on the wrinkled charts, some invisible pen- 
cil was also tracing lines and courses upon the deeply marked 
chart of his forehead. . . . 

"Often, when forced from his hammock by exhausting and 
intolerably vivid dreams of the night, which, resuming his own 
intense thoughts through the day, carried them on amid a clash- 
ing of phrensies, and whirled them round and round in his 
blazing brain, till the very throbbing of his life-spot became in- 
sufferable anguish; and when, as was sometimes the case, these 
spiritual throes in him heaved its being up from its base, and a 
chasm seemed opening in him, from which forked flames and 
lightnings shot up, and accursed fiends beckoned him to leap 
down among them; when this hell in himself yawned beneath 
him, a wild cry would be heard through the ship; and with glar- 
ing eyes Ahalb would burst from his stateroom, as though escap- 
ing from a bed that was on fire. Yet these, perhaps, instead of 
being the insuppressible symptoms of some latent weakness, or 
fright at his own resolve, were but the plainest tokens of its in- 
tensity. For at such times, crazy Ahab, the scheming, unappcas- 
edly steadfast hunter of the White Whale; this Ahab that had 
gone to his hammock, was not the agent that so caused him to 
burst from it in horror again. The latter was the eternal, living 
principle or soul in him; and in sleep, being for the time dissoci- 
ated from the characterizing mind, which at other times em- 
ployed it for its outer vehicle or agent, it spontaneously sought 
escape from the scorching contiguity of the frantic thing, of 
which, for the time, it was no longer an integral. But as the mind 
does not exist, unless leagued with the soul, therefore it must 
have been that, in Ahab's case, yielding up all his thoughts and 
fancies to his one supreme purpose; that purpose by its own sheer 
inveteracy of will forced itself against gods and devils into a 
kind of self-assumed, independent being of its own. Nay, could 
grimly live and burn, while the common vitality to which it was 

conjoined, fled horror-stricken from the unbidden and unfa- 
thered birth. Therefore, the tormented spirit that glared out of 
bodily eyes, when what seemed Ahab rushed from his room, was 
for the time but a vacated thing, a formless somnambulistic 
being, a ray of living light, to be sure, but without an object to 
color, and therefore a blankness in itself. God help thee, old man, 
thy thoughts have created a creature in thee; and he whose in- 
tense thinking thus makes him a Prometheus; a vulture feeds 
upon his heart forever; that vulture the very creature he creates/' 

Considered in this light, Fedallah, Ahab's harpooneer, who 
guides and advises him in the direction of his undoing, and who, 
according to Melville's own suggestion, may be some kind of 
emanation from Ahab himself, is perhaps the sinning mind as 
it shows itself distinct from the whole man. Fedallah and his 
boat-crew are smuggled on board and concealed until the ship 
is in mid-ocean and Ahab's intention is disclosed; they are seen 
in Nantuckct only as ghostly figures hurrying toward the ship 
in the dawn, at a time when there arc the vaguest of rumors 
afloat about Ahab; Fedallah is destined to die before Ahab; it is 
Fedallah, moreover, who sights the spirit-spout, which guides the 
ship into the Pacific. The crew regard Fedallah as the devil in 
disguise, and he appears in general to be offered as a manifesta- 
tion of pure evil. His relationship to Ahab is underlined at 
the end of the seventy-third chapter: "Meantime Fedallah was 
calmly eyeing the right whale's head, and ever and anon glanc- 
ing from the deep wrinkles there to the lines in his own hand. 
And Ahab chanced so to stand, that the Parsee occupied his 
shadow; while if the Parsee's shadow was there at all, it seemed 
only to blend with and lengthen Ahab's. As the crew toiled on, 
Laplandish speculations were bandied among them, concerning 
all these passing things." 

But predestined or otherwise, it is with Ahab the sinner that 
the book is concerned; his sin, in the minor sense, is monomaniac 
vengeance; in the major, the will to destroy the spirit of evil it- 
self, an intention blasphemous because beyond human powers 
and infringing upon the purposes of God. After Starbuck tries 
and fails to turn Ahab aside, we have a series of chapters illus- 


trating the effect of this action on the voyage. The first is a mono- 
logue spoken by Ahab: 

"Dry heat upon my brow? Oh! time was, when as the sunrise 
nobly spurred me, so the sunset soothed. No more. This lovely 
light, it lights not me; all loveliness is anguish to me, since I 
can ne'er enjoy. Gifted with the high perception, I lack the low, 
enjoying power; damned, most subtly and most malignantly! 
damned in the midst of Paradise! Good night good night! 

" 'Twas not so hard a task. I thought to find one stubborn at 
the least; but my one cogged circle fits into all their various 
wheels, and they revolve. . . . They think me mad Starbuck 
does; but I'm demoniac, I am madness maddened! The wild 
madness that's only calm to comprehend itself!" 

The next monologue is spoken by Starbuck: "My soul is more 
than matched; she's overmanned; and by a madman! Insuffer- 
able sting that sanity should ground arms on such a field! But 
he drilled deep down and blasted all my reason out of me! . . . 
Oh God! to sail with such a heathen crew that have small touch 
of human mothers in them! Whelped somewhere by the sharkish 
sea. The White Whale is their demigorgon. Hark! the infernal 

There follows a brief monologue by Stubb, the imperceptive, 
the porter at the gate, and then comes the scene of the "infernal 
orgies" in the forecastle, in which, as a result of the defeat of 
Starbuck, who represents reason, the brutal instincts of the crew 
are progressively loosened, until, on the brink of catastrophe, 
they are brought to order by the need of coping with a physical 
adversary, a rising storm. From this time forward, however, the 
ship is in Ahab's hands; he ultimately destroys his nautical in- 
struments and sails by instinct until he finds the whale in the 
remote Pacific and is destroyed. 

The symbolism of the whale is part of the symbolism of the 
sea. The sea is the realm of the half-known, at once of percep- 
tion and of peril; it is infested by subtle and malignant creatures, 
bent on destruction; it is governed by tremendous, destructive, 
and unpredictable forces, the storms, calms, currents, tides, 
depths, and distances, amid which one can preserve oneself by 

virtue only of the greatest skill, and then but precariously and 
from moment to moment. Of all the creatures in the sea, the 
whale is the greatest, the most intelligent, and the most danger- 
ous. It is for whalemen the chief object in life upon the sea; it 
lures them to sea; it brings them frequently to death; they are of 
necessity much impressed with its dangers and its power. It is 
thus naturally, in a general way, the symbol of evil and of death, 
and this symbolism is developed from beginning to end of the 
book carefully and elaborately; it is especially explicit in the de- 
scription of the skeleton whale which Ishmael once saw in a 
bower in the ArsacideS. The description of the skeleton follows 
a great many other chapters in which the anatomy of the whale 
is treated part by part: one is familiarized in great detail with the 
structure, size, and functions of the animal, as well as with his 
habits, and with the stupendous medium in which he moves. 
Probably no other book exists which so impresses us at once with 
the vastness of the physical universe and with the vastness of the 
idea of the universe. The allegory is incalculably strengthened by 
this sense of vastness and power, and by the detailed reality 
through which it is established. Ultimately we are shown the 
extent of time which the whale inhabits, as well as of space; we 
meet the fossil whale; and we see how the idea of the whale is 
imbedded in all nature, for his physical form is repeatedly sug- 
gested in rocks, in mountains, and in stars. 

This general symbolism is concentrated in Moby Dick, the 
White Whale, who is especially intelligent, malignant, and pow- 
erful; who has destroyed or seriously injured every whaler who 
has sought to kill him, and who has become among whalemen 
a more or less legendary figure. In an earlier encounter, he had 
bitten off Ahab's leg; Ahab is bent on vengeance. This intense 
desire for revenge is a sin; and in Ahab's case the sin is height- 
ened by the conviction that a power greater and more malignant 
than any proper to mere animal nature is acting in or through 
the whale: he is convinced of the true existence of the "demon- 
ism of the world." He thus endeavors to step outside of the limita- 
tions of man and revenge himself upon the permanent order 
of the universe; as Melville says, in a passage already quoted, he 


is Promethean, in that he defies the gods; but he goes beyond 
Prometheus in his fury, for he seeks to destroy a god. He repre- 
sents, essentially, the ultimate distillation of the Calvinistic tem- 

" 'Vengeance on a dumb brute!' cried Starbuck, 'that simply 
smote thee from blindest instinct! Madness! To be enraged with 
a dumb thing, Captain Ahab, seems blasphemous/ 

" 'Hark ye yet again the little lower layer. All visible objects, 
man, are but as pasteboard masks. But in each event in the liv- 
ing act, the undoubted deed there, some unknown but still 
reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from be- 
hind the unreasoning mask. If man will strike, strike through 
the mask! How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrust- 
ing through the wall? To me the white whale is that wall, 
shoved near to me. Sometimes I think there's naught beyond. 
But 'tis enough. He tasks me; he heaps me; I see in him out- 
rageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it. That 
inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale 
agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate 
upon him. Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I'd strike the sun 
if it insulted me/ " 

The most extensive elucidation and defense of the notion of 
the demonism of Moby Dick, as well as of "the demonism of 
the world," occurs in the chapter on the whiteness of the whale, 
equally one of the most astonishing pieces of rhetoric and one 
of the most appalling specimens of metaphysical argument in all 

"Tell me why this strong young colt, foaled in some peaceful 
valley of Vermont, far removed from all beasts of prey why is 
it that upon the sunniest day, if you but shake a fresh buffalo 
robe behind him, so that he cannot even see it, but only smells 
its wild animal muskiness why will he start, snort, and with 
bursting eyes paw the ground in phrensies of affright? There is 
no remembrance in him of any gorings of wild creatures in his 
green northern home, so that the strange muskiness he smells 
cannot recall to him anything associated with the experience of 

former perils; for what knows he, this New England colt, of 
the black bisons of distant Oregon? 

"No: but here thou beholdest even in a dumb brute, the in- 
stinct of the knowledge of the demonism of the world. Though 
thousands of miles from Oregon, still when he smells that savage 
musk, the rending, goring bison herds are as present as to the 
deserted wild foal of the prairies, which this instant they may 
be trampling into dust. 

"Thus, then, the muffled rollings of the milky sea; the bleak 
rustlings of the festooned frosts of mountains; the desolate shift- 
ings of the windrowed snows of prairies; all these, to Ishmael, 
are as the shaking of that buffalo robe to the frightened colt! 

"Though neither knows where lie the nameless things of 
which the mystic sign gives forth such hints; yet with me, as 
with the colt, somewhere those things must exist. Though in 
many of its aspects, this visible world seems formed in love, the 
invisible spheres were formed in fright. 

"But not yet have we solved the incantation of this whiteness, 
and learned why it appeals with such power to the soul; and 
more strange and far more portentous why, as we have seen, 
it is at once the most meaning symbol of spiritual things, nay, 
the very veil of the Christian's Deity; and yet should be as it is, 
the intensifying agent in things the most appalling to mankind. 

"Is it that by its indefiniteness it shadows forth the heartless 
voids and immensities of the universe, and thus stabs us from 
behind with the thought of annihilation, when beholding the 
depths of the milky way? Or is it that in essence whiteness is not 
so much a color as the visible absence of color, and at the same 
time the concrete of all colors; is it for these reasons that there 
is such a dumb blankness, full of meaning, in a wide landscape 
of snows a colorless all-color of atheism from which we shrink? 
And when we consider that other theory of the natural philoso- 
phers, that all other earthly hues every stately or lovely embla- 
zoningthe sweet tinges of sunset skies and woods; yea, and the 
gilded velvets of butterflies, and the butterfly cheeks of young 
girls; all these are but subtle deceits, not actually inherent in 


substances, but only laid on from without; so that all deified 
nature absolutely paints like the harlot, whose allurements cover 
nothing but the charnel-house within; and when we proceed fur- 
ther, and consider that the mystical cosmetic which produces 
every one of her hues, the great principle of light, for ever re- 
mains white or colorless in itself, and if operating without me- 
dium upon matter, would touch all objects, even tulips and roses, 
with its own blank tinge pondering all this, the palsied universe 
lies before us a leper; and like wilfull travellers in Lapland, who 
refuse to wear colored and coloring glasses upon their eyes, so 
the wretched infidel gazes himself blind at the monumental 
white shroud that wraps all the prospect around him. And of all 
these things the Albino whale was the symbol. Wonder ye then 
at the fiery hunt?" 

Through elaborate and magnificent physical description we 
are made to realize the tremendousness of the whale and of his 
medium; through exposition of this nature, we are shown his 
spiritual significance. It is not that one object stands for another, 
as a bare allegorical formula; the relationship is more fully and 
subtly developed in the book than one can develop it in sum- 
mary. The possibility that the physical and the spiritual are one 
and the same, according to the terms employed, is established; 
and one is convinced, with Ahab, for the time being, of the prob- 
ability in this instance. Or if one is not, one is brought to an 
understanding of Ahab's conviction; so that his entire course of 
action becomes, in its spiritual effect, what it was for him in 
literal fact, a defiance of the divine order. 

The union of the physical and the spiritual is at all times im- 
pressive in this narrative; it reaches, in two descriptions of Moby 
Dick himself, a sublimity and terror probably never surpassed in 
literature, and but seldom equalled. The first, and slighter, is the 
description of the spirit-spout, which -lured Ahab into the far 

"It was while gliding through these latter waters that one 
serene and moonlight night, when all the waves rolled by like 
scrolls of silver; and, by their soft suffusing seethings, made what 
seemed a silvery silence, not a solitude: on such a silent night a 

silvery jet was seen far in advance of the white bubbles at the 
bow. Lit up by the moon, it looked celestial; seemed some 
plumed and glittering god uprising from the sea. Fedallah first 
descried this jet. For of these moonlit nights, it was his wont to 
mount to the mainmast head, and stand a look-out there, with 
the same precision as if it had been day. And yet, though herds 
of whales were seen by night, not one whaleman in a hundred 
would venture a lowering for them. You may think with what 
emotions, then, the seamen beheld this Oriental perched aloft 
at such unusual hours; his turban and the moon, companions in 
one sky. But when, after spending his uniform interval there 
for several successive nights without uttering a single sound; 
when, after all this silence, his unearthly voice was heard an- 
nouncing that silvery moonlit jet, every reclining mariner started 
to his feet as if some winged spirit had lighted in the rigging, 
and hailed the mortal crew/' 

The second is the description of Moby Dick near the close of 
the book, when he is actually sighted by daylight for the first 

"Like noiseless nautilus shells, their light prows sped through 
the sea; but only slowly they neared the foe. As they neared him, 
the ocean grew still more smooth; seemed drawing a carpet over 
its waves; seemed a noon-meadow, so serenely it spread. At 
length the breathless hunter came so nigh his seemingly unsus- 
pecting prey, that his entire dazzling hump was distinctly visible, 
sliding along the sea as if an isolated thing, and continually set 
in a revolving ring of finest, fleecy, greenish foam. He saw the 
vast, involved wrinkles of the slightly projecting head beyond. 
Before it, far out on the soft Turkish-rugged waters, went the 
glistening white shadow from his broad, milky forehead, a musi- 
cal rippling playfully accompanying the shade; and behind, the 
blue waters interchangeably flowed over into the moving valley 
of his steady wake; and on either hand bright bubbles rose and 
danced by his side. But these were broken again by the light toes 
of hundreds of gay fowls softly feathering the sea, alternate with 
their fitful flight; and like to some flag-staff rising from the 
painted hull of an argosy, the tall but shattered pole of a recent 


lance projected from the White Whale's back; and at intervals 
one of the cloud of soft-toed fowls hovering, and to and fro skim- 
ming like a canopy over the fish, silently perched and rocked on 
this pole, the long tail-feathers streaming like pennons. 

"A gentle joyousness, a mighty mildness of repose in swift- 
ness, invested the gliding whale. Not the white bull Jupiter 
swimming away with ravished Europa clinging to his graceful 
horns; his lovely leering eyes sideways intent upon the maid; 
with smooth bewitching fleetness, rippling straight for the nup- 
tial bower in Crete; not Jove, not that mighty majesty Supreme! 
did surpass the glorified White Whale as he so divinely swam. 

"On each soft side coincident with the parted swell, that but 
once leaving him, then flowed so wide away on each bright 
side, the whale shed off enticings. No wonder there had been 
some among the hunters who namelessly transported and al- 
lured by all this serenity, had ventured to assail it; but had fatally 
found that quietude but the vesture of tornadoes. Yet calm, en- 
ticing calm, oh whale! thou glidest on, to all who for the first 
time eye thee,. no matter how many in that same way thou may'st 
have bejuggled and destroyed before. 

"And thus, through the serene tranquillities of the tropical 
sea, among waves whose handclappings were suspended by ex- 
ceeding rapture, Moby Dick moved on, still withholding from 
sight the full terrors of his submerged trunk, entirely hiding the 
wrenched hideousness of his jaw. But soon the fore part of him 
slowly rose from the water; for an instant his whole marbleized 
body formed a high arch, like Virginia's Natural Bridge, and 
warningly waving his bannered flukes in the air, the grand god 
revealed himself, sounded, and went out of sight. Hoveringly 
halting, and dipping on the wing, the white sea-fowls longingly 
lingered over the agitated pool that he left/' 

We have now the main outline of the plot and symbolism of 
the book; with these in mind, the reader can readily distinguish 
the significance of the smaller details. 

The book has more or less defied classification, yet chiefly be- 
cause it fuses categories in the matter of structure, so as to pro- 
duce a new structure, and because it is long and complex and 

has been imperfectly studied: it is beyond a cavil one of the most 
carefully and successfully constructed of all the major works of 
literature; to find it careless, redundant, or in any sense romantic, 
as even its professed admirers are prone to do, is merely to mis- 
read the book and to be ignorant of the history leading up to it. 
The book is less a novel than an epic poem. The plot is too 
immediately interpenetrated with idea to lend itself easily to the 
manner of the novelist. The language in which it is written is 
closer to the poetry of Paradise Lost or of Hamlet than it is to 
the prose of the realistic novelist. The extremes of prosaic and 
of poetic language, each at a high level of excellence, might be 
illustrated by the prose of The Age of Innocence, on the one 
hand, and by one of the best sonnets of Shakespeare on the 
other: the extreme of prose is the recounting of individual facts; 
the extreme of poetry is the lyrical, in the best sense; that is, the 
expository concentration of a motivating concept, in language 
such that motivating concept and motivated feeling are expressed 
simultaneously and in brief space. Between these extremes, but 
a little nearer to the sonnet than to Mrs. Wharton, is the lan- 
guage of the great epic or dramatic poem: in Macbeth, or in 
Paradise Lost, the individual passage is never self-sustaining in 
the same measure as the poetry of the great sonnet by either 
author; even the greatest passages are dependent upon the struc- 
ture and upon the total theme for their greatness, and must be 
read in their context if they are not to seem inferior in quality to 
the shorter poems. This does not mean that they are an inferior 
kind of poetry; it means that they are a different kind of poetry. 
In the prose of Moby Dick, this difference in texture is carried 
a little farther, but only a very little. The prose, of Moby Dick, 
though mechanically it is prose and not verse except for those 
passages where it occasionally falls fragmentarily into iambic 
pentameter is by virtue of its elaborate rhythms and heightened 
rhetoric closer in its aesthetic result to the poetry of Paradise Lost 
than to the prose of Mrs. Wharton. The instrument, as an in- 
vention, and even when we are familiar with the great prose of 
the seventeenth century as its background, is essentially as origi- 
nal and powerful an invention as the blank verse of Milton. On 


the whole, we may fairly regard the work as essentially a poetic 

If we so regard it, however that is, if we regard it as an epic 
poem we must mark another exception. Except in Paradise 
Lost, that other great masterpiece of more or less Calvinistic 
literature the epic hero is normally a successful figure, and not 
a tragical one; Ahab, on the other hand, obeys the traditional law 
of tragedy, and destroys himself through allowing himself to be 
dominated by an heroic vice: he is another Coriolanus, but in 
dimensions epical, in the quality of his mind and of his sin meta- 
physical, and in his motivating ideas Calvinistical. One should 
note that Melville, in writing a tragic instead of a traditionally 
heroic epic, displayed a thorough understanding of his material : 
the Calvinistic view led to sin and catastrophe, not to triumph, 
although at times to sin and catastrophe on an inspired and heroic 
scale; Ahab is the magnificent fruition of Maule's curse. Melville, 
on the other hand, escaped the curse by comprehending it. 

The book, then, partakes in some measure of the qualities of 
a novel and of a tragic drama; but essentially it is an epic poem. 
Form and subject are mastered with a success equal to that ob- 
servable in Milton, Vergil, or Shakespeare. 

The book is not only a great epic; it is profoundly an Ameri- 
can epic. It is easy to exaggerate the importance of nationalism in 
literature, but in this particular case, the nationalism is the his- 
torical element, and not to perceive it is to fail to understand the 
very subject of the book. In its physical events, Moby Dick is a 
narration of exploration and heroic adventure; it is thus typical 
of the United States of the nineteenth century, by land as well 
as by sea: "They may celebrate as they will the heroes of Explor- 
ing Expeditions, your Cookes, your Krusensterns; but I say that 
scores of anonymous captains have sailed out of Nantucket, that 
were as great and greater than your Cooke and your Krusenstern. 
For in their succorless empty-handedness, they, in the heathenish 
sharked waters, and by the beaches of unrecorded javelin islands, 
battled with virgin wonders and terrors that Cooke with all his 
marines and muskets would not have willingly dared/' 

The adventure, in its physical aspects, is of New England and 


hence by sea; the original New Englanders, indeed, two cen- 
turies earlier, had adventured by sea into a virgin wilderness, be- 
lieving themselves led by God, and there had wrestled with the 
Wonders of the Invisible World. The fusion of the physical with 
the spiritual in New England is older than Melville; the New 
Englanders of whom Melville wrote were descended from the 
Mathers and their townsmen, from the contemporaries of the 
more recent Jonathan Edwards, men who saw chimneys suddenly 
leap into flame in the midst of a revival sermon, upon whom a 
church might fall, immediately following a preacher's prophecy 
of doom. With physical and spiritual adventure alike, and with 
the two interpenetrative, the New Englanders were familiar from 
childhood, had even been familiar for generations, so that Mel- 
ville but spoke the literal truth of his representative New Eng- 
landers, those of Nantucket, when he spoke with double meaning 
of their adventures at sea: 'The Nantucketer, he alone resides 
and riots on the sea; he alone, in Bible language, goes down to it 
in ships; to and fro ploughing it as his own special plantation. 
There is his home; there lies his business, which a Noah's flood 
would not interrupt, though it overwhelmed all the millions in 
China. He lives on the sea, as prairie cocks in the prairie; he 
hides among the waves, he climbs them as chamois hunters climb 
the Alps. For years he knows not the land; so that when he comes 
to it at last, it smells like another world, more strangely than the 
moon would to an Earthsman. With the landless gull, that at 
sunset folds her wings and is rocked to sleep between billows; so 
at nightfall, the Nantucketer, out of sight of land, furls his sails, 
and lays him to rest, while under his very pillow rush herds of 
walruses and whales." 


The greatest works of Melville, aside from Moby Dick, and 
contrary to the popular view, are among those which follow, not 
among those which precede it. They are Benito Cereno, The 


Encantadas, and Billy Budd. These works, in the matter of style, 
are essentially prose; The Encantadas contains traces of the style 
of Moby Dick, along with traces of its subject-matter, but the 
rhetoric is subdued in structure and in feeling. In Benito Cereno, 
and in the other later works, there is scarcely a trace of the style 
of Moby Dick; we have the style of a novelist, and in Benito 
Cereno especially this style occurs in a form both classical and 

The subject matter of the first two of the later masterpieces 
may be briefly defined: In Benito Cereno, the Spanish sea- 
captain of that name takes insufficient precautions in the trans- 
porting of a ship-load of negro slaves belonging to a friend; the 
slaves mutiny, kill most of the crew, and enslave the remainder, 
including the captain. When Cereno is finally rescued by Cap- 
tain Delano, he is broken in spirit, and says that he can return 
home but to die. When Captain Delano inquires what has cast 
such a shadow upon him, he answers: "The negro/' His reply in 
Spanish would have signified not only the negro, or the black 
man, but by % metaphorical extension the basic evil in human 
nature. The morality of slavery is not an issue in this story; the 
issue is this, that through a series of acts of performance and of 
negligence, the fundamental evil of a group of men, evil which 
normally should have been kept in abeyance, was freed to act. 
The story is a portrait of that evil in action, as shown in the 
negroes, and of the effect of the action, as shown in Cereno. It is 
appalling in its completeness, in its subtle horror, and in its silky 

In The Encantadas, we have a series of ten sketches, descrip- 
tive of the Galdpagos Islands. These islands, as described by Mel- 
ville, are more of the sea, as the sea appears in Moby Dick, than 
is any other land. In the first place they are so surrounded by 
treacherous calms and ocean currents, that for many years their 
exact location was wrongly charted, two groups of islands at a 
considerable distance apart having been charted instead of one: 
it was this mysterious quality which gave them their early name, 
The Enchanted Islands. Further, of all land they are the most 
barren, according to Melville, and the most hostile to human life : 

they are inhabited only by reptiles and by seabirds, and one or 
two of them by the most desperate and debased of human rene- 

Melville's descriptive power in this series is at its best; the 
islands in all their barren and archaic horror are realized unfor- 
gettably. The climax of the series is the account of Hunilla, the 
Chola, who went to the islands with her husband and her brother 
to gather turtle oil, much as the Nantucketers went to sea for 
the oil of the whale. Her husband and her brother were drowned 
while fishing. The ship that left them did not return. She was 
ravished by the boat-crews of two whalers and left behind by 
them, and was ultimately rescued and returned to Peru by the 
ship of which Melville was one of the seamen. She was thus a 
victim of the sea; that is, of brute chance and brutal malice, 
forces over which she had no control, and in the face of which 
the only supporting virtues were absolute humility and absolute 
fortitude: "The last seen of the lone Hunilla she was passing into 
Payta town, riding upon a small gray ass; and before her on the 
ass's shoulders, she eyed the jointed workings of the beast's 
armorial cross." 

The subject of Billy Budd may best be considered after a short 
account of Pierre and The Confidence Man, the two works which 
in reality, though unsuccessful, do more to clarify Melville's total 
work than any book save Moby Dick, and which have above all 
others left his critics in the most abysmal confusion. 

The plot of Pierre, or The Ambiguities may be summarized 
briefly thus: Pierre Glendinning, the son of a wealthy and aristo- 
cratic New York family, discovers that he has an illegitimate 
half-sister the daughter of his father and of a young French girl. 
This is a severe shock, for he had revered his father's memory 
deeply. The sister, Isabel, is without friends or funds. Pierre feels 
morally bound to help her in some manner, and also in some way 
to acknowledge her, to unite his life to hers, yet he knows that to 
acknowledge her as a sister will blight his mother's life. Hence, 
though he is engaged to marry Lucy Tartan, he announces 
to Lucy and his mother that he and Isabel have been secretly 
married, and he takes Isabel to New York, and tries to support 


himself by his pen. His mother disowns and disinherits him. 
Lucy is prostrated, but recovers and follows Pierre to New York, 
where she joins the household under the guise of a cousin. She 
is pursued by her brother and by Pierre's cousin, who has sup- 
planted Pierre as the Glendinning heir. Pierre kills the cousin; 
Lucy dies of shock and Pierre and Isabel commit suicide in 
Pierre's prison cell. 

Now despite the difference in plot and in subject matter, the 
idea of this book is the same as that governing Moby Dick, but 
with a shift in emphasis: it is the relationship of principle to per- 
ception, and the difficulty of adjusting principle to perception in 
such a manner as to permit a judgment which shall be a valid 
motive to action. In Moby Dick, Melville assumed that such 
judgment, though difficult, was possible; Ahab sinned by disre- 
garding the counsel of Starbuck (the critical intellect), by de- 
stroying his nautical instruments, with the aid of which he main- 
tained his position while at sea (that is, in the half-known) with 
relation to the land (the known), and by committing himself 
to his own unaided instincts. In Pierre and in The Confidence 
Man alike it is assumed that valid judgment is impossible, for 
every event, every fact, every person, is too fluid, too unbounded 
to be known: 

"If among the deeper significances of its pervading indefinite- 
ness/' he says in Pierre > "which significances are wisely hidden 
from all but the rarest adepts, the pregnant tragedy of Hamlet 
convey any one particular moral at all fitted to the ordinary uses 
of man, it is this: that all meditation is worthless, unless it 
prompt to action; that it is not for man to stand shilly-shallying 
amid the conflicting invasions of surrounding impulses; that in 
the earliest instant of conviction, the roused man must strike, 
and, if possible, with the precision and force of the lightning 

This is obviously the counsel of the despairing moralist; briefly, 
it may be reduced to this advice: act quickly, for if you give your- 
self time to reconsider, you will be unable to act. Pierre acts he 
surely cannot be accused of moral paralysisbut he acts hastily 
and on unsound principles; he is convinced that the world is one 
of moral confusion, and he proceeds in confusion; intellectually, 

if not emotionally, he is satisfied with confusion; and for the time 
being his author is at one with him in this respect. The following 
passage from Pierre recalls, in its governing idea, the invocation 
to Bulkington, but again with the change of emphasis charac- 
teristic of the later work: 

"As the vine flourishes, as the grape empurples, close up to the 
very walls and muzzles of cannoned Ehrenbreitstein; so do the 
sweetest joys of life grow in the very jaws of its perils. 

"But is life, indeed, a thing for all infidel levities, and we, its 
misdeemed beneficiaries, so utterly fools and infatuate, that what 
we take to be our strongest tower of delight, only stands at the 
caprice of the minutest event the falling of a leaf, the hearing of 
a voice, or the receipt of one little bit of paper scratched over with 
a few small characters by a sharpened feather?" 

The substance of this passage is this: that our safety is mo- 
mentary and precarious; but that there is no trustworthy pre- 
caution that we can take against evil. It thus resembles the invo- 
cation to Bulkington in its general proposition, but differs from 
it, in that the present passage would imply that Bulkington's 
efforts were unavailing. 

Isabel, similarly, after telling how she gradually regained a 
normal attitude after being removed from the madhouse at the 
age of nine or ten, and being placed with a friendly family, re- 
marks: "I cannot speak coherently here; but somehow I felt that 
all good harmless men and women were human things, placed 
at cross-purposes, in a world of snakes and lightnings, in a world 
of horrible and inscrutable inhumanities/' 

There are in the plot of Pierre, two situations in particular, 
the two central issues of the book, which are intended to illus- 
trate the ambiguity of all supposed morality. One is the double 
image of his father: that of the father remembered and repre- 
sented by the portrait painted after his marriage; and that of the 
young rake who begot Isabel, whose existence was suddenly dis- 
closed to Pierre, and who is represented by the portrait painted 
when he was visiting Isabel's mother. Between the extremes of 
the two portraits Pierre's judgment of his father blurs and shifts 
and cannot be fixed; it is this difficulty that disturbed Pierre to 


the extent that he precipitately projected himself into the rela- 
tionship with Isabel. This relationship provides the second am- 
biguity, for though at the time of his action Pierre believed that 
he was acting wholly for moral and generous reasons, he dis- 
covered immediately after acting that he was the victim of an 
incestuous passion for Isabel, so that he learns to distrust his own 
motives. At the conclusion of the book, the author confronts the 
reader with a final ambiguity, the problem of judging Pierre: 
" 'All's over and ye know him not!' came gasping from the wall; 
and from the fingers of Isabel dropped an empty vial as it had 
been a run-out sand-glass and shivered upon the floor; and her 
whole form sloped sideways, and she fell upon Pierre's heart, 
and her long hair ran over him and arbored him in ebon vines." 

The lecture of Plotinus Plinlimmon on clocks and chronom- 
eters, which falls into Pierre's hands as a kind of warning, teaches 
that we should establish a working compromise between absolute 
and worldly truth, if we are not to destroy ourselves. This also 
is the moral of Moby Dick: the need of recognizing not only 
man's aspirations, but his limitations. Pierre, however, like Ahab, 
lacks humility; unlike Ahab, he is not seen by his author in per- 
spectivethat is, Melville agrees with him: 'In those Hyper- 
borean regions, to which enthusiastic Truth, and Earnestness, 
and Independence, will invariably lead a mind fitted by nature 
for profound and fearless thoughts, all objects are seen in a 
dubious, uncertain, and refracting light. Viewed through that 
rarified atmosphere the most immemorially admitted maxims of 
men begin to slide and fluctuate, and finally become wholly in- 
verted; the very heavens themselves being not innocent of pro- 
ducing this confounding effect, since it is mostly in the heavens 
themselves that these wonderful mirages are exhibited. 

"But the example of many minds forever lost, like undiscov- 
erable arctic explorers, amid those treacherous regions, warns us 
entirely away from them; and we learn that it is not for man to 
follow the trail of truth too far, since by so doing he entirely loses 
the directing compass of his mind; for arrived at the Pole, to 
whose barrenness only it points, there, the needle indifferently 
respects all points of the horizon alike." 

This morality is that of the book: that the final truth is abso- 
lute ambiguity, and that nothing can be judged. It frustrates all 
action, including that of the artist and that of the critic. We are 
explicitly informed that we cannot judge Pierre; the essence of 
Pierre is that he can judge nothing and that all his actions derive 
from confusion and end in it. It is small wonder that a book com- 
posed in this temporary twilight should have been so unsatisfac- 
tory as a whole and in detail; for a work of art, like each detail 
comprising it, is by definition a judgment. The prose of Pierre 
is excited and inflated; it contains brilliant passages, but in the 
main is a bad compromise between the prose of Moby Dick and 
the prose of the novelist. 

The theme of The Confidence Man is identical; the details of 
the action are very different. The action takes place on a Missis- 
sippi River steamer, aboard which a confidence man, a scoundrel 
of metaphysical abilities and curiosity, operates partly for profit 
and partly for malicious enjoyment. He appears in various dis- 
guises: as the deaf mute in cream-colored clothes; as the negro 
cripple; as the man in mourning; as the man in the gray coat 
and the white tie; as the President of the Black Rapids Coal Com- 
pany; as the herb doctor; as "the man with the brass plate/' or the 
representative of the Philosophical Intelligence Office; and as the 

In each avatar, the Confidence Man tries to beguile his fellow- 
travelers into feeling enough confidence in him to give him 
money; that is, to form a judgment on which they are willing to 
act. It should be noted, of course, that if they do so, they are 
hoodwinked. The word confidence recurs repeatedly, and is the 
key-word of the allegory. 

In the third chapter, after the man with the wooden leg (a 
major disseminator of distrust) has nearly started a riot against 
the crippled negro, the Methodist Minister moves to the center 
of things, gives the man with the wooden leg a beating, and ad- 
dresses the crowd: 

"Oh friends, oh beloved, how are we admonished by the mel- 
ancholy spectacle of this raver. Let us profit by the lesson; and 
is it not this: that if, next to mistrusting Providence, there be 


ought that a man should pray against, it is against mistrusting 
his fellow-man. I have been in mad-houses full of tragic mopers, 
and seen there the end of suspicion : the cynic, in the moody mad- 
ness muttering in the corner; for years a barren fixture there; 
head lopped over, gnawing his own lip, vulture of himself; while 
by fits and starts from the opposite corner came the grimaces of 
the idiot at him/' 

This sounds well, till we remember the context; the minister, 
in avoiding the madhouse, becomes a dupe. This antithesis alone, 
or the escape into deliberate hypocrisy, is all that Melville will 
allow in this book; the possibility of the reasonable skepticism of 
the cautious and critical man, as a prelude to a judgment at least 
practically usable, he will not admit. 

The man in the gray coat and the white tie is trying to restore 
the confidence of the young minister (not the Methodist Minis- 
ter) in the old negro, when they encounter the man with the 
wooden leg, who laughs insanely and tells an anecdote casting 
ridicule on confidence. The man with the wooden leg claims that 
the negro is a % white imposter. The man with the gray coat and 
the white tie says: 

" Tell me, sir, do you really think that a white could look the 
negro so? For one, I should call it pretty good acting/ 

" 'Not much better than any other man acts/ 

" 'How? Does all the world act? Am I, for instance, an actor? 
Is my reverend friend here, too, a performer?' 

" Tes, don't you both perform acts? To do is to act; so all doers 
are actors/ " 

The effect of this passage is as follows: to perform an action 
is to have confidence in the motivating judgment. But no man 
save a hypocrite can profess to have such confidence. Hence a 
"doer" is an "actor/' 

The most amusing illustration of the theme is the story of the 
Indian hater, with its attendant and philosophical theory of 
Indian-hating. The Indian, in this legend, represents the man 
or fact to be judged and so trusted or suspected; if trusted, he 
is necessarily untrustworthy, in accordance with the doctrine, for 
it is impossible to obtain knowledge adequate for a sound judg- 

ment. The Indian-hater is one who trusts no Indian, but spends 
his life in the woods killing every Indian he meets. But most 
Indian-haters are imperfect; sometimes one will unaccountably 
become lonely and trust an Indian at random and so meet his 
end; others take frequent vacations and' return to their families. 
Of these last, the narrator says: "For the diluted Indian hater, 
although the vacations he permits himself impair the keeping of 
his character, yet, it should not be overlooked that this is the 
man who, by his very infirmity, enables us to form surmises, 
however inadequate, of what Indian-hating in its perfection is/' 
Henry Adams, I should imagine, is the most distinguished ex- 
ample of the diluted Indian-hater in our literature. 

The Confidence Man is unsatisfactory as philosophy and is 
tediously repetitious as narrative; but the prose, unlike that of 
Pierre, is crisp and hard, and in a few passages the comment is 
brilliant. The incident of the mystic, Mark Winsome, and of his 
disciple, the wealthy young merchant, who turns the mystical 
doctrine to practical ends, is a very biting commentary on Em- 
erson and on the practical implications of Emersonian philosophy. 
Melville was in a kind of moral limbo when he wrote these 
books, however, and they are essentially unsatisfactory, though 
they display greater intellectual activity than such works as White 
Jacket, Typee,. and Omoo, works which within their limits are 
successful. His failure in the two, however, is in a sense a proof 
of the seriousness with which he took his central problem of 
moral navigation; he considered the problem in all its possibili- 
ties, and with sufficient imaginative intensity to leave a fairly 
complete record of his consideration behind him. The notion 
advanced by Mumford and others, that these books come out of 
a period of insanity, is as absurd as the notion of Weaver that 
Pierre, if psychoanalyzed in the proper spirit, is autobiographi- 
cal. Both theories, of course, may be correct, but there is no evi- 
dence to support either that would be admitted in court by a 
disinterested criminal judge; and furthermore, it is the relation- 
ship of these books to his work that we must understand if we 
desire to profit by his work their relationship to his life is as 
unprofitable as it is unfathomable. 


Hawthorne finished his career in much the same limbo; Henry 
Adams passed his entire career there, but not so far in. There is 
more madness in The Sense of the Past, by Henry James, than 
in either book, and far more in the poetry of T. S. Eliot. Yet 
none of these writers is insane; as a result, rather, of being in- 
volved in historical processes beyond their own powers to under- 
stand the processes and extricate themselves, they are guilty of 
forms of literary procedure which isolate certain aspects of the 
consciousness from the rest, thus producing, within the literary 
form, an imperfect intelligence; which, however, if mistaken for 
a perfect portrait and used as a model for imitation, may be a 
step toward personal disintegration. 

In the final masterpiece, Billy Budd, the most profound of the 
later works, if not the best written the prose, unfortunately, 
shows a little structural awkwardness, the result of thirty years 
of disuse the problem posed in Pierre and The Confidence Man 
received its answer. The plot is as follows: Billy Budd, a hand- 
some young sailor on a British frigate, is accused to the captain 
of conspiracy;* the accuser, Claggart, is constitutionally a mali- 
cious and dishonest man, who perjures himself to gratify an ir- 
rational dislike. Billy is called before the captain to meet the 
accusation; he is young, strong, and a man of quick feeling, and 
he is handicapped by an innocent mind and a bad stutter. His 
muscles move quicker than his tongue; he strikes Claggart in the 
head and kills him; he is tried and hanged. 

The captain, Vere, is able to fathom the situation; from the 
standpoint of purely private morality, he sympathizes with Billy. 
But Billy, in striking Claggart under these conditions committed 
a capital crime, and in killing him committed another, facts 
which Billy knew perfectly; to free him would establish at least 
a precedent for freeing the whole matter of criminal justice in 
the navy to the caprices of private judgment; the men would be 
likely to take advantage of it, to the damage of discipline. There 
had, moreover, been serious riots in the navy but a short time 
before. Vere can see only one solution to the situation: to act 
according to established principle, which supports public order, 
and, for the margin of difference between established principle 


and the facts of the particular situation, to accept it as private 

The solution, with certain modifications, is the solution of 
Mrs. Wharton for the same moral problem as it was later posed 
by Henry James; the moral principle, in the better works of 
Mrs. Wharton, however, is usually incarnate in a code of man- 
ners, and at times appears less defensible than in Billy Budd, be- 
cause of the tendency observable in codes of manners to become 
externalized and superficial, to become insulated from the prin- 
ciples informing them with life. The solution, in terms as bald 
and absolute as the terms of Melville, was likewise the solution 
of Socrates. It is not every situation, of course, which admits of 
a solution by virtue of so certain a reference to the "known": 
there may be cases, as Henry James was later to demonstrate 
almost to his own undoing, and as Melville asserted in Moby 
Dick, in which the problem of moral navigation, though not in- 
soluble, is a subtler one, in which the exact relevance of any single 
principle is harder to establish, and in which there may appear 
to be the claims of conflicting principles. The solution, however, 
in the case of this story, and as a matter of general principle, is 
at once unanswerable, dignified, and profound; the characteriza- 
tion of Vere and of Claggart represents an insight worthy to be 
the final achievement of so long and so great a life. 


The other works which deserve discussion may now be con- 
sidered very briefly. The first two, Typee and Omoo, are anec- 
dotal narratives of personal adventure in the south seas. There is 
no guiding theme; the prose has a freshness and loveliness that 
at times put one inexplicably in mind of the verse of the early 
Marlowe, but its virtues are minor and fragmentary. The next 
work, Mardi, is a long allegorical narrative, with what purports 
to be a south Pacific setting; it is the most ambitious work in 
length and scope, aside from Moby Dick, and though scarcely 
unified is extremely powerful. 

Mardi falls into four parts; the opening chapters, in which the 

protagonist tells of his life on a Pacific whaler; the subsequent 
chapters, following his desertion, with a comrade, Jarl, in which 
he describes the ocean as seen from an open boat, chapters rival- 
ling in their description all save the finest descriptive passages in 
Moby Dick; the chapters describing their life for some weeks on 
a small island schooner which they overtake, manned only by 
a native islander and his wife, this section containing the sharp- 
est and most amusing characterization of island temperament 
that Melville ever achieved; and the remainder and chief part of 
the book, which deals with the imaginary and allegorical region 
of Mardi. The allegory of the last part deals with the search for 
the maiden Yillah, who appears to represent earthly happiness; 
the narrator and searcher is pursued by Queen Hautia, who ap- 
pears to represent sensual corruption, and who is inescapably 
related in some mysterious fashion to Yillah, and by the sons of 
a priest whom he slew early in the narrative to obtain temporary 
possession of Yillah. We appear to have, then, the pursuit for 
something approaching romantic love, with the flight at once 
from romantic disillusionment (Hautia) and from the conse- 
quences of one's own sins committed in the name of love. In 
the search, the narrator and his companions visit all the realms of 
Mardi, and observe every possible mode of life and government, 
but they fail to find Yillah. The only one of the party who finds 
happiness is the half-mad and embittered philosopher, Babbal- 
anja, who is converted to Christianity on the way, and who 
thereupon renounces the world. 

The theme is immature and romantic, and many of the parts 
are of small interest; yet many of the parts, within the limits of 
their subject, possess extraordinary beauty, and had Melville 
never developed beyond this point, it would have been necessary 
to accord him one of the very highest places in romantic litera- 
ture. The most extraordinary portion of the book is the series of 
chapters, numbers seventy-one to eighty-five, inclusive, dealing 
with the stay in Willamilla; they constitute the richest, and from 
a rhetorical point of view the most powerfully moving, rhapsody 
on romantic sensuousness with which I am acquainted. The 
supper of Abrazza, toward the close, and the conversion of Bab- 


balanja, though briefer, are at moments nearly as excellent. In 
these passages, and elsewhere in the book, notably in the great 
invocation to Kamehameha, in chapter sixty-eight, the epic prose 
of Moby Dick is already highly developed. 

In White-Jacket we have another anecdotal journal, of which 
the high points are the account of Dr. Cuticle and his operation, 
and the brief chapter entitled The Bay of All Beauties; in this 
work, the romanticism has already begun to wane. Redburn, 
published in the same year, and dealing with Melville's first 
voyage, has similar virtues and limitations, and is perhaps more 
consistently of interest. Israel Potter, the life of an American 
patriot of the Revolutionary War, is one of the few great novels 
of pure adventure in English; it comes after Moby Dick in point 
of time, and probably surpasses all the works preceding Moby 
Dick save, possibly, Mardi. 


A Crisis in the History of American Obscurantism 


have called me mad; but the question is not yet settled, 
whether madness is or is not the loftiest intelligence)-whether much 
that is glorious whether all that is prof ound does not spring from 
disease of thought from moods of mind exalted at the expense of 
the general intellect." 


I AM ABOUT TO promulgate a heresy; namely, that E. A. Poe, 
although he achieved, as his admirers have claimed, a remark- 
able agreement between his theory and his practice, is exception- 
ally bad in both. I am somewhat startled, moreover, to awaken to 
the fact that this is a heresy, that those who object to Poe would 
do well to establish their position now if ever. Poe has long passed 
casually with me and with most of my friends as a bad writer 
accidentally and temporarily popular; the fact of the matter is, of 
course, that he has been pretty effectually established as a great 
writer while we have been sleeping. The menace lies not, pri- 
marily, in his impressionistic admirers among literary people, of 
whom he still has some, even in England and in America, where 
a familiarity with his language ought to render his crudity ob- 
vious, for these individuals in the main do not make themselves 
permanently very effective; it lies rather in the impressive body of 
scholarship, beginning, perhaps, with Harrison, Woodberry, and 
Stedman, and continuing down to such writers as Campbell, 
Stovall, and Una Pope-Hennessy. Much of this scholarship is 
primarily biographical, historical, and textual; but when a writer 
is supported by a sufficient body of such scholarship, a very little 
philosophical elucidation will suffice to establish him in the schol- 
arly world as a writer whose greatness is self-evident. This fact is 
made especially evident in the work of the two critics who come 

closest to taking the position which I shall take: W. C. Brownell l 
and especially Norman Foerster. 2 Both approach the essential 
issue; neither is able, or it may be that because of its absurdity 
neither is willing, to define it; and both maintain the traditional 
reverence for Poe as a stylist, a reverence which I believe to be 
at once unjustified and a source of error in dealing with his 

My consternation became acute upon the examination of a 
recent edition of selections from Poe, prepared, it is true, merely 
as a classroom text, but prepared with great competence, by a 
respectable Poe scholar, the late Margaret Alterton, and by an 
exceptionally distinguished scholar in the field of the English 
Renaissance, Professor Hardin Craig. 3 The Introduction to this 
text, the first and second parts of which were written by Miss 
Alterton and after her death revised by Professor Craig, the third 
part of which was written wholly by Professor Craig, offers the 
best general defense of Poe with which I am acquainted; it is 
careful and thorough, and it makes as good a case for Poe, I 
imagine, as can be made. And when one has finished it, one has 
a perfectly clear idea of why it is wrong. 

The problem is a simple one. Most of Poe's essential theory is 
summarized in three essays: The Poetic Principle, The Philoso- 
phy of Composition, and The Rationale of Verse. Important state- 
ments can be found elsewhere, and I shall draw upon other 
essays, but these essays contain most of the essential ideas. Fur- 
thermore the essential statements recur repeatedly in other es- 
says, frequently almost verbatim. By confining oneself largely to 
these essays, by selecting the crucial statements, by showing as 
briefly as possible their obvious relations one to another, one can 
reduce Poe's aesthetic to a very brief and a perfectly accurate 

1 W. C. Brownell, American Prose Masters (New York, 1909). 

2 Norman Foerster, American Criticism (Boston and New York, 1928). I 
should like, if I had time, to examine Professor Foerster's essay on Poe at 
length, partly because of the similarities and the differences between his posi- 
tion and my own, and pardy because of a matter largely irrelevant but none 
the less astonishing that is, Professor Foerster's view of the nature and history 
of music, subjects of which he displays an ignorance nothing less than sweep- 

3 Edgar Allan Poe, edited by Craig and Alterton (New York, 1935). 

statement. In doing this, I shall endeavor in every case to inter- 
pret what he says directly, not with the aid of other writers whose 
theories may have influenced him and by aid of whose theories 
one may conceivably be able to gloss over some of his confusion; 
and I shall endeavor to show that this direct approach is fully 
justified by his own artistic practice. 

The passages which I shall quote have all been quoted many 
times before; I shall have to beg indulgence on that score and 
ask the reader to examine once and for all their obvious sig- 

Any study of Poe should begin with a statement made in con- 
nection with Elizabeth Barretts A Drama of Exile. He says: 
"This is emphatically the thinking age; indeed it may very well 
be questioned whether man ever substantially thought before." 4 
This sentence displays an ignorance at once of thought and of 
the history of thought so comprehensive as to preclude the pos- 
sibility of our surprise at any further disclosures. It helps to ex- 
plain, furthermore, Poe's extraordinary inability to understand 
even the poetry* of ages previous to his own, as well as his sub- 
servience in matters of taste to the vulgar sentimentalism which 
dominated the more popular poets of his period, such poets as 
Moore, Hood, and Willis, to mention no others. One seldom en- 
counters a writer so thoroughly at the mercy of contemporaneity. 
Professor Foerster writes of him: "Of this sustaining power of the 
past, it must be admitted, Poe himself had but a dim understand- 
ing." And he quotes Professor Woodberry (Life, I, 132) as fol- 
lows: "He had, in the narrowest sense, a contemporaneous mind, 
the instincts of the journalist, the magazine writer." 5 


One cannot better introduce the question of Poe's aesthetics than 
by his well-known remarks about Tennyson, in The Poetic Prin- 
ciple: "In perfect sincerity, I regard him as the noblest poet that 

*A11 quotations in this essay are from the edition of Stedman and Wood- 
berry. Quotations from the criticism only are given footnotes. This quotation is 
from Vol. I, page 294, of the three volumes of criticism. 

5 Foerster, op. cit., pages 1 and 2. 


ever lived. ... I call him and think him, the noblest of poets, 
not because the impressions he produces are at all times the most 
profound, not because the poetical excitement which he induces 
is at all times the most intense, but because it is, at all times the 
most ethereal, in other words, the most elevating and the most 
pure. No poet is so little of the earth, earthy." 6 The italics, of 
course, here and elsewhere are Poe's; it is seldom necessary to im- 
prove upon Poe in this respect. Our task will be primarily to find 
out what this passage means. I believe that I shall be able to show 
that it means this: that the poet should not deal with human, 
that is, moral, experience; that the subject-matter of poetry is of 
an order essentially supra-human; that the poet has no way 
of understanding his subject-matter. There will appear certain 
qualifications to this summary, but they are of very little im- 

In the same essay Poe states: "I hold that a long poem does not 
exist. I maintain that the phrase, 'a long poem/ is a flat contra- 
diction of terms." 7 And again, thus connecting the last state- 
ment with the statement regarding Tennyson: "A poem deserves 
its title only inasmuch as it elevates by exciting the soul. . . . 
But all excitements are, through a psychal necessity, transient." 
"After the lapse of half an hour at the utmost, it [the excitementl 
flags fails a revulsion ensues and then the poem is in effect, 
and in fact, no longer such." 8 "This great work [Paradise Lost], 
in fact, is to be regarded as poetical, only when, losing sight of 
that vital requisite of all works of Art, Unity, we view it merely 
as a series of minor poems. If, to preserve its Unity, its totality 
of effect or impression we read it (as would be necessary) at 
a single sitting, the result is but a constant alternation of excite- 
ment and depression. ... It follows from all this that the ulti- 
mate, aggregate, or absolute effect of even the best epic under 
the sun is a nullity: and this is precisely the fact." 9 

From these passages it follows: first, that Poe's very concep- 
tion of poetic unity is one of mood, or emotion; and second, that 

* Stedman and Woodberry, op. cit., I, 27. 

7 Ibid., I, 3 

8 Ibid., I, 
Ibid., 1,4. 

he regards the existence of mood to be governed by narrow me- 
chanical rules in other words, exaltation of spirit is merely a 
form of nervous excitement. The word effect is used here as else- 
where as a synonym for impression; artistic unity is described 
specifically as totality of effect. There appears to be no awareness 
whatever of that comprehensive act of the spirit, in part intel- 
lectual, whereby we understand and remember Paradise Lost 
as a whole, seize the whole intention with intellect and with 
memory, and, plunging into any passage, experience that passage 
in relationship to the whole, an act in which the emotional ele- 
ment, since it is involved in and supported by the rational under- 
standing, rises superior to mechanical necessity. 

We should observe further that in these passages Poe begins 
that process of systematic exclusion, in the course of which he 
eliminates from the field of English poetry nearly all of the 
greatest acknowledged masters, reserving the field very largely 
to Coleridge, Tennyson, Thomas Moore, himself, and R. H. 
Home. As we shall see, this process of elimination is not a mere 
accident of temperament, is not merely a series of accidents of 
judgment, but is the necessary corollary, in the field of particular 
judgments, of the general theory which we are now considering. 

Poe continues: "On the other hand, it is clear that a poem may 
be improperly brief. Undue brevity degenerates into mere epi- 
grammatism. A very short poem, while now and then producing 
a brilliant or vivid, never produces a profound or enduring ef- 
fect." 10 He cites The Indian Serenade, by Shelley, a poem of 
twenty-four lines, as unduly brief. He regarded one hundred 
lines as approximately the most effective number for a poem; 
the length of the lines themselves, he appears never to have con- 
sidered, though if we compare two of his own poems of nearly 
the same number of lines, Ulalume and The Raven, the former, 
in fact and in effect, is much the shorter. 

We may observe in the preceding quotation once more the 
obliviousness to the function of intellectual content in poetry, 
and an act of exclusion which deals very shortly, not only with 
the epigrammatists, but also with every sonneteer in the lan- 

10 Ibid., I, 6. 

guage, including Shakespeare and Milton, and with all the mas- 
ters of the short lyric, including so wide a diversity of poets as 
Herbert, Herrick, Donne, and Landor. 

By a further act of exclusion, he eliminates the great satirical 
and didactic masters. In his essay on Bryant, he says: "A satire 
is, of course, no poem." n And in The Poetic Principle: "We find 
it [the 'epic mania'] succeeded by a heresy too palpably false 
to be long tolerated. ... I allude to the heresy of The Didactic. 
It has long been assumed that the end of all poetry is Truth. 
Every poem, it is said, should inculcate a moral; and by this 
moral is the poetical merit of the work to be adjudged. We 
Americans, especially, have patronized this happy idea; and we 
Bostonians, very especially, have developed it in full. We have 
taken it into our heads to write a poem simply for the poem's 
sake, and to acknowledge such to have been our design would 
be to confess ourselves radically wanting in true poetic dignity 
and force; but the simple fact is, that, would we but permit our- 
selves to look into our own souls, we should immediately there 
discover that under the sun there neither exists nor can exist any 
work more thoroughly dignified, more supremely noble, than 
this very poem this poem per se this poem which is a poem 
and nothing more this poem written solely for the poem's 
sake." 12 

Now if Poe had merely intended to exclude some of the un- 
satisfactory didactic poetry, let us say, of Longfellow or of Low- 
ell, we should have very little complaint to make; however, these 
poets are bad not because they are didactic, but because they 
write badly, and because their didacticism is frequently unsound 
in conception, and because the lesson which they endeavor to 
teach is frequently connected only arbitrarily with their subjects. 
The didactic close of Byrant's great lyric, To a Waterfowl, on 
the other hand, is merely an explicit statement, and a fine state- 
ment, of the idea governing the poem, an idea inherent, but in- 
sufficiently obvious, in what has gone before, and it is foolish 
to object to it; and in the poetry of Samuel Johnson, of Dryden, 

u Ibid., I, 111. 
12 Ibid., I, 8. 

and of Pope, as in Milton's sonnets, we have yet another form of 
didacticism, the loss of which would leave us vastly impover- 
ished. 13 

Poe appears never to have grasped the simple and traditional 
distinction between matter (truth) and manner (beauty); he 
does not see that beauty is a quality of style instead of its subject- 
matter, that it is merely the most complete communication po^, 
sible, through connotation as well as denotation, of the poet's 
personal realization of a moral (or human) truth, whether that 
truth be of very great importance or very little, a truth that 
must be understood primarily in conceptual terms, regardless of 
whether the poem ultimately embodies it in the form of descrip- 
tion, of narration, or of exposition. A sound attitude toward a 
major problem, communicated with adequacy of detail, is what 
we ordinarily mean by sublimity. It is through the neglect of 
these fundamental ideas that Poe runs into difficulty. 

'With as deep a reverence for the True as ever inspired the 
bosom of man/' he continues, "I would, nevertheless, limit its 
modes of inculcation. I would limit to enforce them. I would 
not enfeeble them by dissipation. The demands of Truth are se- 
vere; she has no sympathy with the myrtles. All that which is so 
indispensable in Song, is precisely all that with which she has 
nothing whatever to do. ... In enforcing a truth ... we must 
be in that mood which, as nearly as possible, is the exact converse 
of the poetical." 14 

Poe appears oblivious to the possibility that we may come to a 
truth with an attitude other than that of the advocate; that we 
may, in brief, contemplate, with Dante, rather than enforce, with 
Aquinas. It follows that he would not recognize the more com- 
plex procedure of contemplating the enforcement of truth, the 
procedure which results, for example, in the didacticism of Pope 
and of Dryden; nor yet the contemplation of the need of the 

13 It is instructive to compare To a Waterfowl with The Chambered Nautilus. 
Both follow the same rhetorical formula, but in Bryant's poem the "moral" is 
implicit throughout; in the poem by Holmes, it is a rhetorical imposition. The 
poem by Holmes is impressively written, notwithstanding; but it illustrates the 
more vulgar procedure. 

14 Stedman and Woodberry, op. cit., I, 9. 


enforcement of truth, the procedure which results in the satirical 
poetry of the same writers; nor the contemplation of a discrep- 
ancy between personal experience and a standard truth, a pro- 
cedure which results in much of the poetry of Donne. Yet these 
are all major human experiences; they all require individual per- 
ception and moral adjustment; according to the traditional view, 
they are thus legitimate material for poetry. 

Poe sees truly enough that the enforcement of truth, in itself, 
does not constitute poetry, and on the basis of that elementary 
observation he falls into the common romantic error, which may 
be stated briefly as follows: truth is not poetry; truth should 
therefore be eliminated from poetry, in the interests of a purer 
poetry. He would, in short, advise us to retain the attitude, but 
to discard the object of the attitude. The correct formula, on the 
other hand, is this: truth is not poetry; poetry is truth and some- 
thing more. It is the completeness of the poetic experience which 
makes it valuable. How thoroughly Poe would rob us of all sub- 
ject matter, how thoroughly he would reduce poetry, from its 
traditional position, at least when ideally considered, as the act 
of complete comprehension, to a position of triviality and of 
charlatanism, we shall presently see. 

Poe's passion for exclusion, and the certitude that he has no 
conception of moral sublimity in poetry, appear very clearly in 
the essay on Home's Orion: 'We shall now be fully understood. 
If, with Coleridge, who, however erring at times, was precisely 
the mind fitted to decide such a question as this if, with him, 
we reject passion from the true, from the pure poetry if we re- 
ject even passionif we discard as feeble, as unworthy of the 
high spirituality of the theme (which has its origin in the God- 
head) if we dismiss even the nearly divine emotion of human 
love, that emotion which merely to name causes the pen to 
tremble, with how much greater reason shall we dismiss all 
else?" 16 

The dismissal appears to be inclusive enough, by this time, in 
all conscience. There would appear to be some confusion in Poe's 
mind between a passionate or violent style, which (in spite of the 

"Ibid., I, 268. 


magnificence of King Lear) he might reasonably regard as in- 
ferior to a style more serene, regardless of subject, as if the poet 
were to rise superior to his passions in his contemplation of them, 
and passion as subject-matter. It is his fundamental confusion of 
matter and manner, to which I have already alluded. 

In the same essay, and on the same subject, he writes: "Al- 
though we argue, for example, with Coleridge, that poetry and 
passion are discordant, yet we are willing to permit Tennyson 
to bring, to the intense passion which prompted his Locksley 
Hall, the aid of that terseness and pungency which are derivable 
from rhythm and from rhyme. The effect he produces, however, 
is purely passionate, and not, unless in detached passages of this 
magnificent philippic, a properly poetic effect. His Oenone, on 
the other hand, exalts the soul not into passion, but into a con- 
ception of pure beauty, which in its elevation, its calm and 
intense rapture, has in it a foreshadowing of the future and spir- 
itual life, and as far transcends earthly passion as the holy radi- 
ance of the sun does the glimmering and feeble phosphorescence 
of the glow-wbrm. His Morte-d' Arthur is in the same majestic 
vein. The Sensitive Plant of Shelley is in the same sublime spirit 
. . . Readers do exist . . . and always will exist, who, to hearts 
of maddening fervor, unite in perfection, the sentiment of the 
beautiful that divine sixth sense which is yet so faintly under- 
stood, that sense which phrenology has attempted to embody in 
its organ of ideality, that sense which speaks of God through 
His purest, if not His sole attribute, which proves, and which 
alone proves his existence ... the origin of poetry lies in a 
thirst for a wilder beauty than earth supplies. . . . Poetry itself 
is the imperfect effort to quench this immortal thirst by novel 
combinations of beautiful forms. . . ." 17 

In the remarks on Oenone, we may seem at first glance to have 
the hint that Poe has approached the concept of moral sublimity, 
but the last sentence quoted brings us back abruptly to the triv- 
ial; the exaltation is not a moral exaltation, not the result of 

16 See Edward Hungerford, Poe and Phrenology, American Literature, II, 
209-31 (Nov., 1930). 

17 Stedman and Woodberry, op. cit., I, 267-8. 


the exercise of the intelligence and of character, but is the result 
of manipulation and of trickery. And were we to allow ourselves 
the luxury of worrying about Poe's minor obscurities, his use of 
the word beautiful in the last sentence would complicate our 
problem inextricably: that is, it appears that we achieve the beau- 
tiful by new combinations of items which are already beautiful; 
we have again his helpless inability to separate matter from man- 
ner, the poem from its subject. 

It is obvious, then, that poetry is not, for Poe, a refined and 
enriched technique of moral comprehension. It can be of no 
aid to us in understanding ourselves or in ordering our lives, for 
most of our experience is irrelevant to it. If, indeed, certain hu- 
man experiences are admitted as legitimate subjects, they are ad- 
mitted, as we shall see, because the poet cannot write without 
writing about something even the most irresponsible use of lan- 
guage involves an inescapable minimum of statement, however 
incomplete or dismembered; and those experiences are admitted 
which seem to involve the minimum of complexity. They are 
admitted, moreover, not as something valuable in themselves, 
not as something to be understood, but as ingredients in a for- 
mula by means of which something outside our experience may 
be suggested. If Poe moves us most to indignation when defining 
his exclusions, he perplexes us most profoundly when he en- 
deavors to approximate a definition of what he would include. 

He writes in The Poetic Principle: "An immortal instinct, 
deep within the spirit of man, is thus, plainly, a sense of the 
Beautiful. . . . This thirst belongs to the immortality of man. It 
is at once a consequence and an indication of his perennial exist- 
ence. It is the desire of the moth for the star. It is no mere ap- 
preciation of the Beauty before us, but a wild effort to reach the 
Beauty above. Inspired by an ecstatic Prescience of the glories 
beyond the grave, we struggle by multiform combinations among 
the things and thoughts of Time to attain a portion of that 
Loveliness whose very elements, perhaps, appertain to eternity 
alone. And thus when by Poetry or when by Music, the most 
entrancing of the Poetic moods we find ourselves melted into 
tears, we weep then, not as the Abbate Gravia supposes through 


excess of pleasure, but through a certain petulant, impatient sor- 
row at our inability to grasp now, wholly, here on earth, at once 
and forever, those divine and rapturous joys, of which through 
the poem, or through the music, we attain to but brief and inde- 
terminate glimpses." 18 

Briefly, Poe implies something like this: the proper subject- 
matter of poetry is Beauty, but since true Beauty exists only in 
eternity, the poet cannot experience it and is deprived of his 
subject-matter; by manipulating the materials of our present life, 
we may suggest that Beauty exists elsewhere, and this is the best 
that we can do. 

This is not the same thing as the mysticism of such a writer 
as Very, for Very sought to define what he considered a truth, 
the experience of mystical beatitude, and the experience of hu- 
man longing for it; the former experience, though inexpressible, 
he strove to express clearly; the latter experience, since it was 
clearly expressible, he expressed clearly. Very, moreover, as a 
Christian, believed in moral judgment, in poetry and out, in spite 
of the fact thut as a Calvinist he seems to have believed that his 
moral judgments were actually dictated by God. Nor is it the 
same thing as the awareness on the part of Emily Dickinson of 
the abyss between the human and the supra-human or the extra- 
human, for she merely defines the tragic experience of confront- 
ing the abyss and communicates her own moral adjustment to 
the experience, or at least she does no more than this in her better 
poems. Both poets seek to understand and both are as far as may 
be successful; Poe seeks a justification for refusing to understand. 
Poe is no more a mystic than a moralist; he is an excited senti- 

As we may discover from other passages, especially in The 
Philosophy of Composition, Poe had certain definite ideas in re- 
gard to which forms of human experience lent themselves best 
to this procedure, and also in regard' to the rules of the pro- 
cedure. Having decided, in an astonishing passage to which I 
shall presently return, that a melancholy tone most greatly facili- 
tated his purpose, he wrote: "'Of all melancholy topics, what, 

"Ibid., 10-11. 

according to the universal understanding of mankind is the 
most melancholy?' Death was the obvious reply. 'And when/ 
I said, 'is this most melancholy of topics most poetical?' From 
what I have already explained at some length, the answer here 
also is obvious When it most closely allies itself to Beauty; the 
death, then, of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most 
poetical topic in the world. . . .' " 19 In other words, we are not 
concerned to understand human experience; we are seeking, 
rather, the isolated elements, or fragments, of experience which 
may best serve as the ingredients of a formula for the production 
of a kind of emotional delusion, and our final decision in the 
matter is determined again by our inability to distinguish be- 
tween the subject and the style of poetry, by the conviction that 
beauty is the subject of poetry. 

The reader should note carefully what this means; perhaps he 
will pardon me for restating it: the subject-matter of poetry, 
properly considered, is by definition incomprehensible and un- 
attainable; the poet, in dealing with something else, toward 
which he has no intellectual or moral responsibilities whatever 
("Unless incidentally/' says Poe, "poetry has no concern what- 
ever either with Duty or with Truth" 20 ), should merely en- 
deavor to suggest that a higher meaning exists in other words, 
should endeavor to suggest the presence of a meaning when he 
is aware of none. The poet has only to write a good description 
of something physically impressive, with an air of mystery, an 
air of meaning concealed. 

An air of mystery, of strangeness, will then be of necessity, not 
an adjunct of poetic style, but the very essence of poetic style. In 
Ligeia there occurs the well-known passage which it is now 
necessary to quote: " 'There is no exquisite beauty/ says Bacon, 
Lord Verulam, speaking truly of all the forms and genera of 
beauty, 'without some strangeness in the proportion.' " But in 
Poe's terms, strangeness and beauty, from the standpoint of the 
practical poet, are identical. Related to this concept is his concept 
of originality, which I shall take up later and separately. 

18 Ibid., I, 39. 
80 Ibid., I, 12. 


Poe is, in brief, an explicit obscurantist. Hawthorne, in his 
four last and unfinished romances, gives us the physical embodi- 
ment of allegory without the meaning to be embodied, but he 
appears to hope for a meaning, to be, somehow, pathetically and 
unsuccessfully in search of one. Henry James, in many stories, 
as in The Spoils of Poynton, to choose an obvious example, gives 
us a sequence of facts without being able to pass judgment upon 
them, so that the stories remain almost as inconclusive as Stock- 
ton's trivial tour de force, The Lady or the Tiger? Both men 
frequently write in advance of their understanding, the one as an 
allegorist, the other as a novelist. But in Poe, obscurantism has 
ceased to be merely an accident of inadequate understanding; 
it has become the explicit aim of writing and has begun the gen- 
eration of a method. Poe's aesthetic is an aesthetic of obscurant- 
ism. We have that willful dislocation of feeling from understand- 
ing, which, growing out of the uncertainty regarding the nature 
of moral truth in general and its identity in particular situations 
which produced such writers as Hawthorne and James, was 
later to result through the exploitation of special techniques in 
the violent aberrations of the Experimental School of the twen- 
tieth century, culminating in the catastrophe of Hart Crane. 21 

Poe speaks a great deal of the need of originality. This quality, 
as he understands it, appears to be a fairly simple mechanical 
device, first, for fixing the attention, and second, for heightening 
the effect of strangeness. We may obtain a fair idea of his con- 
cept of originality of theme from his comment on a poem by 
Amelia Welby, quoted in the series of brief notes entitled Minor 
Contemporaries: "The subject has nothing of originality: A wid- 
ower muses by the grave of his wife. Here then is a great de- 
merit; for originality of theme, if not absolutely first sought, 
should be among the first. Nothing is more clear than this prop- 
osition, although denied by the chlorine critics (the grass-green). 
The desire of the new is an element of the soul. The most 
exquisite pleasures grow dull in repetition. A strain of music 
enchants. Heard a second time, it pleases. Heard a tenth, it does 

21 For a detailed study of these techniques, see pages 30 to 101 of this vol- 


not displease. We hear it a twentieth, and ask ourselves why we 
admired. At the fiftieth it produces ennui, at the hundredth dis- 

Now I do not know what music most delighted Poe, unless 
perchance it may have been the melodies of Thomas Moore, but 
if I may be permitted to use exact numbers in the same figura- 
tive sense in which I conceive that Poe here used them, I am 
bound to say that my own experience with music differs pro- 
foundly. The trouble again is traceable to Poe's failure to under- 
stand the moral basis of art, to his view of art as a kind of 
stimulant, ingeniously concocted, which may, if one is lucky, 
raise one to a moment of divine delusion. A Bach fugue or a 
Byrd mass moves us not primarily because of any originality it 
may display, but because of its sublimity as I have already de- 
fined the term. Rehearing can do no more than give us a fuller 
and more secure awareness of this quality. The same is true of 
Paradise Lost. Poe fails to see that the originality of a poem lies 
not in the newness of the general theme for if it did, the possi- 
bilities of poetry would have been exhausted long before the 
time of Poe but in the quality of the personal intelligence, as 
that intelligence appears in the minutiae of style, in the defining 
limits of thought and of feeling, brought to the subject by the 
poet who writes of it. The originality, from Poe's point of view, 
of the subjects of such poems as The Raven, The Sleeper, and 
Ulalume would reside in the fantastic dramatic and scenic effects 
by means of which the subject of simple regret is concealed, 
diffused, and rendered ludicrous. From the same point of view, 
Rose Aylmer would necessarily be lacking in originality. 

In The Philosophy of Composition Poe gives us a hint as to his 
conception of originality of style. After a brief discourse on origi- 
nality of versification, and the unaccountable way in which it has 
been neglected, he states that he lays no claim to originality as 
regards the meter or the rhythm of The Raven, but only as re- 
gards the stanza: "nothing even remotely approaching this com- 
bination has ever been attempted." 23 Again we see Poe's tend- 

22 Stedman and Woodberry, op. cit., Ill, 284. 
38 Ibid., 1,42. 


ency to rely upon the mechanically startling, in preference to the 
inimitable. This fact, coupled with his extraordinary theories of 
meter, which I shall examine separately, bears a close relation- 
ship to the clumsiness and insensitivity of his verse. Read three 
times, his rhythms disgust, because they are untrained and in- 
sensitive and have no individual life within their surprising me- 
chanical frames. 

Before turning to the principal poems for a brief examination 
of them, we should observe at least one remark on the subject of 
melancholy. In The Philosophy of Composition, after stating 
that, in planning The Raven, he had decided upon Beauty as the 
province of the poem, Poe writes as follows: "Regarding, then, 
Beauty as my province, my next question referred to the tone 
of its highest manifestation and all experience has shown that 
this tone is one of sadness. Beauty, of whatever kind, in its 
supreme development, invariably excites the sensitive soul to 
tears. Melancholy is thus the most legitimate of all the poetical 

tones." 24 

Now if the reader will keep in mind the principles that we 
have already deduced; namely, that Beauty is unattainable, that 
the poet can merely suggest its existence, that this suggestion 
depends upon the ingenious manipulation of the least obstructive 
elements of normal experience it will at once be obvious that 
Poe is here suggesting a reversal of motivation. That is, since 
Beauty excites to tears (let us assume with Poe, for the moment, 
that it does), if we begin with tears, we may believe ourselves 
moved for a moment by Beauty. This interpretation is supported 
solidly by the last two sentences quoted, particularly when we 
regard their order. 

The Philosophy of Composition thus appears after all to be a 
singularly shocking document. Were it an examination of the 
means by which a poet might communicate a comprehensible 
judgment, were it a plea that sucK communication be carefully 
planned in advance, we could do no less than approve. But it 
is not that; it is rather an effort to establish the rules for a species 
of incantation, of witchcraft; rules, whereby, through the ma- 

* Ibid., I, 36. 

nipulation of certain substances in certain arbitrary ways, it may 
be possible to invoke, more or less accidentally, something that 
appears more or less to be a divine emanation. It is not surprising 
that Poe expressed more than once a very qualified appreciation 
of Milton. 

We may fairly conclude this phase of the discussion by a 
passage from The Poetic Principle, a passage quoted also by Miss 
Alterton : "It may be, indeed, that here this sublime end is, now 
and then, attained in fact. We are often made to feel, with a 
shivering delight, that from an earthly harp are stricken notes 
which cannot have been unfamiliar to the angels. 25 It should 
now be clear what Poe had in mind when he referred to Tenny- 
son as the most elevating and the most pure of the poets; what 
Tennyson might have thought of the attribution is beside the 


Before turning to the poems themselves, we should examine 
very briefly Poe's general theory of meter, as it appears primarily 
in The Rationale of Verse. And before doing this we should 
recall to mind in very general terms the common methods of 
scansion. They are: first, the classical, in which the measure is 
based upon quantity, or length of syllable, and in which accent is 
a source merely of variation and of complication; second, the 
French, or syllabic, in which the measure is a matter wholly of 
the number of syllables in the line, and in which the primary 
source of variation is quantity, if the language be one, like 
French, which lacks mechanical stress; third, the Anglo-Saxon, 
or accentual, in which the measure is based purely upon the 
number of accents, variation being derived from every other 
source possible; and fourth, the English, or accentual-syllabic, 
which resembles the classical system in its types of feet, but in 
which the foot and measure are determined by accent instead of 
by quantity. 

Since it is with English verse, primarily, that we are dealing, 

"Ibid., I, 12. 


we should note one or two other points in connection with it. 
First, the language is not divided into accented and unaccented 
syllables; within certain limits, there is an almost infinite varia- 
tion of accent, and no two syllables are ever accented in exactly 
the same way. Consequently, for metrical purposes, a syllable is 
considered accented or unaccented only in relationship to the 
other syllables in the same foot. For example, let us take Ben 
Jonson's line: 

Drink to/ me on/ly with/ thine eyes. 

The accentuation of the first foot is inverted; in each of the 
other feet the accent falls on the second syllable. Yet the word 
with, which even in normal prose receives more accent than the 
last syllable of only, is less heavily accented than the word thine; 
so that in the last two feet we have a mounting series of four 
degrees of accent. This variety of accent is one form of variation 
in English meter; another is quantity; another is the normal pro- 
cedure of substitution. 

We may observe the obvious opposition of quantity to accent 
in the first foot, a normal iambic one, of this line from Robert 

Nay, barren are the mountains, and spent the streams. 

The first syllable of the foot, Nay, is long and unaccented; the 
second and final syllable, bar-, is short and accented. On the other 
hand, length and accent may be brought to coincide; or there may 
be immeasurably subtle variations between the two extremes. 
These sources of variation, when understood and mastered, pro- 
vide the fluid sensitivity to be found in the best English verse, 
within even the most rigid of patterns. 

But to all this Poe appears oblivious. He says: "Accented syl- 
lables are of course always long/' 20 This initial confusion is 
obviously related to Poe's preference for meters dependent upon 
a heavy, unvaried, and mechanical beat. He makes little use of 

*' Ibid., I, 60. 

quantity except as a reinforcement of accent; where it does not 
reinforce the accent, the failure is an accident and usually results 
in a clumsy variant rather than a pleasing one. 

In The Rationale of Verse, Poe offers a new system for mark- 
ing scansion, based in part upon the heresy which I have just 
mentioned, in part upon the equally gross concept that all syl- 
lables can be grouped into general classes, each class having a 
fixed and recognizable degree of accent. He is even so rash as to 
attempt the scansion of Horace on this basis, and to state that 
French verse is without music because the language is without 
accent. Poe had an ear for only the crudest of distinctions. 


The poems on which Poe's reputation as an important poet 
must rest are the following: The City in the Sea, The Haunted 
Palace, The Conqueror Worm, Ulalume, The Raven, and The 
Sleeper. These are the ambitious efforts; the others, even if one 
grant them a high measure of success, are minor. The City in the 
Sea is generally, and I believe rightly, regarded as Poe's best per- 
formance. After the first five lines, which are bad enough to have 
been written by Kipling, the poem displays few gross lapses and 
some excellent passages. There is admirable description, and 
there is throughout an intense feeling of meaning withheld. We 
have, in brief, all of the paraphernalia of allegory except the 
significance. The poem falls short of being one of the romantic 
masterpieces of obscure emotionalism chiefly because of weak 
phrases: it remains Poe's most startling and talented failure. 

In The Haunted Palace, the physical material has allegorical 
significance which is perfectly definite. The palace of the mon- 
arch Thought is the head; the windows are the eyes; the door is 
the mouth; the spirits are the thoughts, which issue as words. 
This, however, is not the real explanation of the poem, for the 
subject is the change from sanity to insanity. The change occurs 
in the fifth stanza, suddenly, and without motivation: we have 
feeling divorced completely from understanding; the change it- 
self is mad, for it is inexplicable. 


Ulalume contains very much the same problems as the other 
poems not yet considered. In examining this poem, we must con- 
fine ourselves strictly to what Poe offered us, namely, the poem, 
and refrain from biographical entanglements, which are both 
gratuitous and uncertain. If the poem is not self-sufficient, it is 
obscure; and, as critics of art, we are bound to rest with the as- 
sumption that the obscurity was satisfactory to Poe. 

The poem opens with allusions to unidentified places, places 
with dark but unexplained histories: Weir, Auber, ghoul-haunted 
woodlands; we have, in other words, a good deal of ready-made 
Gothic mystery. The items are introduced to evoke emotion at 
small cost: they are familiar romantic devices, but they are none 
the less deliberately obscure. In the passage opening with the 
alley Titanic, and ending with Mount Yaanek and the Boreal 
Pole, we have an explicit reference to a period of violent feeling 
in the history of the protagonist: the cause and nature of the 
feeling are alike unexplained at the time, and even the loss of 
Ulalume, which is a very general sort of datum, is an inadequate 
account of feelings so grotesquely violent. In lines twenty to 
twenty-nine, there are dark references to a past event, references 
which are ultimately cleared up when we learn of the burial of 
Ulalume, but which, as we come to them, have the effect of 
gratuitous emotionalizing. Lines thirty to forty are the best in the 
poem: they hint of the strangeness of the nocturnal turning to- 
ward dawn, and then describe the appearance of Astarte, as the 
rising moon; if this strangeness has any spiritual significance, 
however, we are given no clue to it. The protagonist wishes to 
accept Astarte as a guide; Psyche distrusts her; they argue at 
length but darkly darkly, in that the purpose of the protagonist 
and the fears of Psyche alike are not given us, so that the argu- 
ment is like one in a dream. Psyche yields, but as she does so, 
they are led by Astarte to the door of the tomb, which brings the 
protagonist up shortly, with a cold realization of his loss. Lines 
ninety-five to one hundred and four, omitted by Griswold and 
by most of the cheap popular editions, but important, it would 
seem, to the poem, state the possibility that Astarte may have 
been conjured up to prevent their further irresponsible wander- 

ing in the haunted woodlands (which I take to represent the 
loose feelings through which they have been moving) by recall- 
ing them to a sense of definite tragedy. 

In other words, the subject of grief is employed as a very gen- 
eral excuse for a good deal of obscure and only vaguely related 
emotion. This subject is used exactly as we should expect to find 
it used after examining Poe's aesthetic theory. The poem is as 
surely an excursion into the incoherencies of dream-conscious- 
ness as is the Larme of Rimbaud; yet it lacks wholly the fine 
surface of that poem. 

In The Raven, that attenuated exercise for elocutionists, and 
in The Sleeper, the general procedure is identical, but the meter 
in the former and the writing in both are so thoroughly bad that 
other considerations appear unnecessary. The Sleeper is a kind 
of Gothic parody of Henry King's imperfect but none the less 
great Exequy: a comparison of the two poems will show the 
difference between moral grandeur and the sensationalism of a 
poet devoid of moral intelligence. It is noteworthy that King is 
commonly and justly regarded as one of the smaller poets of his 

In The Conqueror Worm, the desire for inexpensive feeling 
has led to a piece of writing that is, phrase by phrase, solidly 


In his criticism of Hawthorne's Tales, Poe outlines his theory 
of the short story. He defends the tale, as preferable to the novel, 
on the same grounds as those on which he defends the short 
poem in preference to the long. He states the necessity of careful 
planning and of economy of means. 

He says: ". . . having conceived with deliberate care, a cer- 
tain unique or single effect to be wrought out, he [the skillful 
literary artist] then invents such incidents he then combines 
such events as may best aid him in establishing this preconceived 
effect." 27 Now the word effect, here as elsewhere in Poe, means 

27 Ibid., II, 31. 


impression, or mood; it is a word that connotes emotion purely 
and simply. So that we see the story-teller, like the poet, inter- 
ested primarily in the creation of an emotion for its own sake, 
not in the understanding of an experience. It is significant in this 
connection that most of his heroes are mad or on the verge of 
madness; a datum which settles his action firmly in the realm of 
inexplicable feeling from the outset. 

Morella begins thus: "With a feeling of deep yet most singular 
affection I regarded my friend Morella. Thrown by accident into 
her society many years ago, my soul, from our first meeting, 
burned with fires it had never before known; but the fires were 
not of Eros, and bitter and tormenting to my spirit was the 
gradual conviction that I could in no manner define their un- 
usual meaning or regulate their vague intensity/* And Ligeia: 
"I cannot, for my soul, remember how, when, or even precisely 
where, I first became acquainted with the Lady Ligeia. Long 
years have since elapsed, and my memory is feeble through much 
suffering." The Assignation: "Ill-fated and mysterious man! be- 
wildered in the brilliancy of thine own imagination, and fallen 
in the flames of thine own youth/' The Tell-Tale Heart: "True! 
nervous very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am! but 
why will you say that I am* mad?" Berenice: ". . . it is wonder- 
ful what a stagnation there fell upon the springs of my life- 
wonderful how total an inversion took place in the character of 
my commonest thought/' Eleanora: "I am come of a race noted 
for vigor of fancy and ardor of passion. Men have called me 
mad; but the question is not yet settled, whether madness is or 
is not the loftiest intelligence whether much that is glorious 
whether all that is profound does not spring from disease of 
thought from moods of mind exalted at the expense of the 
general intellect." Roderick Usher, in addition, is mad; The 
Black Cat is a study in madness; The Masque of the Red Death 
is a study in hallucinatory terror. They are all studies in hysteria; 
they are written for the sake of the hysteria. 

In discussing Hawthorne, . however, Poe suggests other possi- 
bilities: "We have said that the tale has a point of superiority 

even over the poem. In fact, while the rhythm of this latter is an 
essential aid in the development of the poem's highest idea the 
idea of the Beautiful the artificialities of this rhythm are an 
inseparable bar to the development of all points of thought or 
expression which have their basis in Truth. But Truth is often, 
and in very great degree, the aim of the tale. Some of the finest 
tales are tales of ratiocination. Thus the field of this species of 
composition, if not in so elevated a region on the mountain of 
the Mind, is a tableland of far vaster extent than the domain of 
the mere poem. Its products are never so rich, but infinitely more 
numerous, and infinitely more appreciable by the mass of man- 
kind. The writer of the prose tale, in short, may bring to his 
theme a vast variety of modes of inflection of thought and ex- 
pression (the ratiocinative, for example, the sarcastic, or the 
humorous) which are not only antagonistic to the nature of the 
poem, but absolutely forbidden by one of its most peculiar and 
indispensable adjuncts; we allude, of course, to rhythm. It may 
be added here, par parenthse, that the author who aims at the 
purely beautiful in a prose tale is laboring at a great disadvantage. 
For Beauty can be better treated in the poem. Not so with terror, 
or passion, or horror, or a multitude of other such points." 28 

Poe speaks in this passage, not only of the tale of effect, to 
which allusion has already been made, but of the tale of ratio- 
cination, that is, of the detective story, such as The Gold Bug or 
The Murders in the Rue Morgue. It is noteworthy that this is the 
only example which he gives of the invasion of the field of fiction 
by Truth; in other words, his primary conception of intellectual 
activity in fiction appears to be in the contrivance of a puzzle. 
Between this childish view of intellectuality, on the one hand, 
and the unoriented emotionalism of the tale of effect on the 
other, we have that vast and solid region inhabited by the major 
literary figures of the world, the region in which human experi- 
ence is understood in moral terms and emotion is the result of 
that understanding, or is seen in relationship to that understand- 
ing and so judged. This region appears to have been closed to 

* Ibid., II, 31. 

Poe; if we except the highly schematized and crudely melodra- 
matic allegory of William Wilson, we have no basis for believing 
that he ever discovered it. 


If Poe's chief work is confined to the communication of feel- 
ing, what can we say of the quality of that communication? Poe 
rests his case for art on taste, and though we may disagree with 
him, yet we are bound to examine his own taste, for if he has no 
taste, he has nothing. It is my belief that he has little or none. 

Every literary critic has a right to a good many errors of judg- 
ment; or at least every critic makes a good many. But if we 
survey Poe's critical opinions we can scarcely fail to be astonished 
by them. He understood little or nothing that was written before 
his own age, and though he was not unaware of the virtues, 
apparently, of some of the better stylists of his period, as for ex- 
ample Coleridge, he at one time or another praised such writers 
as R. H. H&rne, N. P. Willis, Thomas Hood, and Thomas 
Moore as highly or more highly; in fact, he placed Home and 
Moore among the greatest geniuses of all time. He praised Bryant 
above his American contemporaries, but he based his praise upon 
poems which did not deserve it. He was able to discover nu- 
merous grammatical errors in one of the lesser novels of Cooper, 
but he was unable to avoid making such errors in large numbers 
in his own prose; and the faultless, limpid, and unforgettable 
prose of the seventh chapter of The Deerslayer, the profundity 
of conception of The Bravo, the characterization of Satanstoe 
and The Chainbearer, were as far beyond his powers of com- 
prehension as beyond his powers of creation. 

If we neglect for a moment the underlying defect in all of 
Poe's work, the absence of theme, and scrutinize carefully the 
manner in which he communicates feeling, in which alone he is 
interested, we can scarcely avoid the observation that his work is 
compounded almost wholly of stereotyped expressions, most of 
them of a very melodramatic cast. Now one cannot object to a 
man wholly on the basis of stereotyped expression. There is a 


measure of stereotyped expression, apparently inadvertent, in 
many poems and works of prose which sustain themselves not- 
withstanding by virtue of a fundamental vigor of conception: 
W. H. Hudson is a writer of prose who sins extensively in this 
respect, but survives; Henry King is such a poet. On the other 
hand, the most finished masters of style, and this is perhaps 
especially true of the poets, have all, in some measure, employed 
the formulary phrase deliberately to achieve various but precise 
results: Crashaw, Milton, and Blake are familiar examples of the 
procedure. Indeed, if we imagine a very precise and solid sub- 
structure of theme, as in Crashaw's paraphrase of the Twenty- 
third Psalm, it is possible to see how a passage deliberately 
stereotyped in a certain measure, yet with a slight but precise ad- 
mixture of personal perception, may at once define a traditional 
concept and the relationship of that concept to a personal per- 
ception, in fact the entire relationship of personal to traditional 
feeling and the perception of such a relationship is in itself and 
as a whole a profoundly personal or original perception in a 
manner more successful than any other conceivable; this pro- 
cedure, however, presupposes a theme, a sense of history, or 
tradition, and a recognition of the poetic art as a technique of 
judgment, and it necessitates incidentally a masterly understand- 
ing and control of meter. Poe, on the other hand endeavors as far 
as may be to escape from a paraphrasable theme; he recognizes 
no obligation to understand the minimum of theme from which 
he cannot escape in fact, he seems to recognize an obligation 
not to understand it; his historical training and understanding 
amounted nearly to nothing; so that there is nothing in his work 
either to justify his formulary expression and to give it content 
and precision of meaning, on the one hand, or, on the other, to 
give his work as a whole sufficient force and substance to make 
us forget the formulary expression we merely have melodra- 
matic stereotypes in a vacuum. The last instrument which, if 
well employed, might to some extent have alleviated his phras- 
ing, and which did, in fact, alleviate it in part in a few fragments 
to which I shall presently allude, the instrument of meter, he 
was unable to control except occasionally and accidentally. His 

theory of meter was false. Whether the theory arose from imper- 
ception or led to imperception is immaterial, but the fact remains 
that his meter is almost invariably clumsy and mechanical in a 
measure perhaps never equalled by another poet who has en- 
joyed a comparable reputation. His favorite stanzaic and struc- 
tural device, the device of mechanical repetition, is perhaps 
equally the result of his untrained and insensitive taste and of 
his feeling no responsibility to say anything accurately when 
there is nothing in particular to be said, every technique is a 
technique of diffusion, for a technique of concise definition 
would reduce the poem to nothing. 

To illustrate the weakness of detail in his poems and stories is 
an easy matter; to illustrate the extent of that weakness is im- 
possible, for his work is composed of it. In his poems, one may 
enumerate the following passages as fairly well executed, if one 
grants him temporarily his fundamental assumptions about art: 
Ulalume, lines thirty to thirty-eight, provided one can endure 
the meter; The City in the Sea, lines six to eleven, lines twenty- 
four to the end; To One in Paradise, the first stanza and perhaps 
the last; the early poem To Helen, especially the first three or 
four lines; The Spirits of the Dead, lines five to ten. Perhaps the 
only passage of his prose which displays comparable ability is 
the opening of The Assignation: the conception is merely that of 
the typically Byronic man of mystery, and the detail, in its rough 
identity, is comparably typical, but there is a certain life in the 
language, especially in the rhythm of the language, that renders 
the passage memorable. 

For the rest, we encounter prose such as the following: "As if 
in the superhuman energy of his utterance there had been found 
the potency of a spell, the huge antique panels to which the 
speaker pointed threw slowly back, upon the instant, their pon- 
derous and ebony jaws." "It was a voluptuous scene, that mas- 
querade. But first let me tell of the rooms in which it was held. 
They were seven an imperial suite." "Where were the souls of 
the haughty family of the bride, when, through thirst of gold, 
they permitted to pass the threshold of an apartment so bedecked, 
a maiden and a daughter so beloved?" "Morella's erudition was 


profound. As I hope to live, her talents were of no common order 
her powers of mind were gigantic/' 

We are met on every page of his poetry with resounding pu- 
erilities such as "the pallid bust of Pallas/' and "the viol, the 
violet, and the vine." The poetry, in fact, is composed almost 
wholly of such items as these: 

Ah, broken is the golden bowl! the spirit flown forever! 
Let the hell toll! a saintly soul floats on the Stygian river: 
And, Guy de Vere, hast thou no tear? weep now or never more! 
See! on yon drear and rigid bier low lies thy love, Lenore! 

At midnight in the month of June, 
I stand beneath the mystic moon. 

For alas! alas! with me 

The light of Life is o'er! 
No more no more no more 

(Such language holds the solemn sea 
To the sands upon the shore) 

Shall bloom the thunder-blasted tree, 
Or the stricken eagle soar! 

That motley drama oh, be sure 

It shall not be forgot! 
With its Phantom chased forevermore, 

By a crowd that seize it not, 
Through a circle that ever returneth in 

To the self-same spot, 
And much of Madness, and more of Sin, 

And horror the soul of the plot. 

And the silken, sad, uncertain rustling of each purple curtain 
Thrilled me filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before. 

This is an art to delight the soul of a servant girl; it is a matter 
for astonishment that mature men can be found to take this kind 


of thing seriously. It is small wonder that the claims of Chivers 
have been seriously advanced of late years in the face of such an 
achievement; they have been fairly advanced, for Chivers is 
nearly as admirable a poet. If one is in need of a standard, one 
should have recourse to Bridges' Eras, to Hardy's During Wind 
and Rain, or to Arnold's Dover Beach. And in making one's 
final estimate of the quality of Poe's taste, one should not fail to 
consider the style of his critical prose, of which the excerpts 
quoted in the present essay are fair, and indeed, as specimens oF 
taste, are random examples. 


On what grounds, if any, can we then defend Poe? We can 
obviously defend his taste as long as we honestly like it. The 
present writer is willing to leave it, after these few remarks, to its 
admirers. As to his critical theory, however, and the structural 
defects of hi^ work, it appears to me certain that the difficulty 
which I have raised is the central problem in Poe criticism; yet 
not only has it never been met, but, so far as one can judge, it 
has scarcely been recognized. 

The attempt to justify Poe on the basis of his place in history 
can arise only from a confusion of processes: to explain a man's 
place in history is not the same thing as to judge his value. Poe 
was largely formed by the same influences which formed other 
men, both better and worse, Coleridge as well as Chivers; his 
particular nature resulted in his pushing certain essential ro- 
mantic notions very nearly as far as they could go. It is unlikely, 
on the other hand, that the course of romantic literature would 
have been very different except (perhaps) in America, had Poe 
never been born; in any event, his influence could only have 
been a bad one, and to assert that he exerted an influence is not 
to praise him. His clinical value resides in the fact that as a speci- 
men of late romantic theory and practice he is at once extreme 
and typical. To understand the nature of his confusion is to come 
nearer to an understanding not only of his American contempo- 

raries, but of French Symbolism and of American Experimental- 
ism as well. 

There are, I believe, two general lines of argument or proce- 
dure that may be used more or less in support of Poe's position; 
one is that of the Alterton-Craig Introduction, the other (if I 
may cite another eminent example) is that of Professor Floyd 

The argument of the Introduction appears to be roughly that 
Poe is an intellectual poet, because: first, he worked out in 
Eureka a theory of cosmic harmony and unity; second, related to 
this, he held a theory of the harmony and unity of the parts of 
the poem; and third, he devoted a certain amount of rational 
effort to working out the rules by which this harmony and unity 
could be attained. 

But this intellectuality, if that is the name for it, is all anterior 
to the poem, not in the poem; it resides merely in the rules for 
the practice of the obscurantism which I have defined. The In- 
troduction cites as evidence of Poe's recognition of the intel- 
lectual element in poetry, his essay on Drake and Halleck, yet 
the intellectuality in question here is plainly of the sort which I 
have just described. As a result, Professor Craig's comparison of 
Poe to Donne, Dryden, and Aquinas, is, to the present writer at 
least, profoundly shocking. 

The only alternative is that of Professor Stovall, as well as of 
a good many others: to accept Poe's theory of Beauty as if it were 
clearly understood and then to examine minor points of Poe 
criticism with lucidity and with learning. But Poe's theory of 
Beauty is not understood, and no casual allusion to Plato will 
ever clarify it. 



Aspects of New England Mysticism 

But thou art far away among Time's toys. . . . 

IN THE PAST TWO DECADES two major American writers have 
been rediscovered and established securely in their rightful 
places in literary history. I refer to Emily Dickinson and to 
Herman Melville. I am proposing the establishment of a third, 
who is no doubt the least of the three but who is nevertheless 
a writer of impressive qualities. 1 

Jones Very was born at Salem, Massachusetts, on August 28th, 
1813, and died there on May 8th, 1880. In 1839 a collection of 
his essays and poems, selected at least in part by R. W. Emerson, 
was published at Boston by Little and Brown, in the third year of 
that firm's existence. In 1883 an incomplete but on the whole a 
very judicious collection of his poems alone, with William P. 
Andrews as editor and memorialist, was issued at Boston by 
Houghton Mifflin. And in 1886 the same firm issued a "Com- 
plete and Revised Edition" of Poems and Essays, by Jones Very, 
with a brief but admirable biographical sketch by James Freeman 
Clarke, and a wholly superfluous preface by C. A. Bartol. This 
edition, in spite of its containing a few excellent poems lacking 
in the previous edition, and in spite of its offering a few prefer- 

should mention also Frederick Goddard Tuckerman, a selection of 
whose poems was issued in 1931 by Knopf; the rediscover er, editor, and 
memorialist being Mr. Witter Bynner. Tuckerman is unquestionably a dis- 
tinguished poet: he is, however, romantic in the essential sense; he divorces 
feeling from motive as far as possible. The beautifully executed sonnet be- 
ginning "An upper chamber in a darkened house" is a perfect example of the 
procedure: a man is imagined in a tragic, but impenetrable, setting, to serve 
as the symbol of a feeling with which he has no connection and the source of 
which we are not given. Tuckerman is much like the Hawthorne of the last 
romances, except that he writes better. [After these remarks were written, Pro- 
fessor Thomas H. Johnson, of Yale, announced a major and now famous dis- 
covery: that of Edward Taylor.] 


able, as well as a few less excellent, variants, may have been 
responsible for the death of Very's nascent reputation, for it 
carries an enormous amount of dead material. If there are fur- 
ther editions, they have not fallen into my hands. 2 The volume 
of 1886 contains as a frontispiece a photograph of the author, 
showing a long and narrow New England face, extremely sensi- 
tive yet equally ascetic, immaculate alike in flesh and in spirit, 
surely the face of a saint, and a face worthy of one of the finest 
of poets. 

Very was about ten years younger than Emerson and about 
four years older than Thoreau. Me preached at times in the Uni- 
tarian pulpit; he is commonly listed as one of the minor Tran- 
scendentalists; yet both facts are misleading. He was a mystic, 
primarily, whose theological and spiritual affiliations were with 
the earlier Puritans and Quakers rather than with the Unitarians 
or with the friends of Emerson; and if a minor writer, he was at 
least not one in relationship to the Transcendentalists. 

He was a Unitarian only by virtue of the historical connection 
between the Unitarian and Puritan Churches and by virtue of 
the wide hospitality of the Unitarians. He was not a Transcen- 
dentalist at all, but a Christian, and a dogmatic one; his only 
point of contact with Emerson was in regard to the surrender of 
the will, that is, the submission of oneself to the direct guidance 
of the Spirit. He differed from Emerson in that Emerson was a 
pantheist and a moral relativist, so that Emerson's guiding Spirit 
was, in effect, instinct and personal whim, which, in his terms, 
became identical with the Divine Imperative, but which, in prac- 
tice, amounted to a kind of benevolent if not invariably benefi- 
cent sentimentalism. The religious experience for Emerson was a 
kind of good-natured self-indulgence; for Very it was a sublime 
exaltation, which appears to have endured until his death. Very 
was beyond question a saintly man, and we hesitate to doubt a 

2 When I first published this essay, in the American Review, for May, 1936, 
I stated that I had not seen the edition of 1839. I was promptly, and, consider- 
ing its rarity, munificently, presented with a copy by the Reverend Charles 
Morris Addison, of Cambridge, Mass. A comparison of the three texts makes it 
obvious that a critical edition of Very is much to be desired. 


saint when he states that he is a mystic. Very's poems bear wit- 
ness unanswerably that he had the experience which Emerson 
merely recommends. 

Very's spiritual life was passed on that minute island of being, 
which is occupied in common by the more exalted of the Friends 
and of the Puritans. Whereas the Friend taught the importance 
of the submission to the Divine Will, the Puritan taught the 
inevitability of the submission; the private will, either way, is 
stricken from the conscious life of the intensely devout; and 
when the Holy Spirit bears witness to the beatitude of the Pu- 
ritan, as it bore witness in the heart of Jonathan Edwards, that 
Puritan lives much as does an exalted member of the Society of 
Friends. The reader might be led to believe that Very's connec- 
tions with the Friends were more obvious than his connections 
with the Puritans, for he recommended the submission of the 
will in many poems, and in only one Justification })y Faith, 
which appears only in the edition of 1886 spoke of the inevi- 
tability of the submission; but as a Unitarian, his background 
was Puritan, Snd it is characteristic of the Puritan, as of every 
other kind of determinist, to recommend on moral grounds that 
which he professes to believe inevitable as a matter of cosmology, 
to confess by implication to a belief in that power of choice which 
he explicitly denies; indeed the familiar and daily literature of 
the Puritans the literature of sermons, memoirs, and similar 
documents displays repeatedly the same recommendation that 
we find in Very, and the novels of O. W. Holmes, if we feel that 
we need their testimony, bear witness to the recurrence of the 
recommendation in Calvinistic conversation. 

The perfect dogmatic definition of Very's position as a New 
England mystic occurs in the sonnet entitled The Hand and 

The hand and foot that stir not, they shall find 
Sooner than all the rightful place to go: 
Now in their motion free as roving wind, 
Though first no snail so limited and slow; 
I mark them full of labor all the day, 

Each active motion made in perfect rest; 
They cannot from their path mistaken stray, 
Though 'tis not theirs, yet in it they are blest; 
The bird has not their hidden track found out, 
The cunning fox though full of art he he; 
It is the way unseen, the perfect rout, 
Wherever bound, yet thou art ever free; 
The path of Him, whose perfect law of love 
Bids spheres and atoms in just order move. 

The first two lines of the poem imply an initial choice, and thus 
might be considered to be in agreement not only with colloquial 
Calvinism, but also with the Friends and with Emerson. The last 
three lines, however, are deterministic, and put the orthodox 
stamp on the statement; the twelfth line is in effect a paraphrase 
of various passages to be found in certain earlier Puritan theo- 
logians. Thus John Norton wrote in 1654: "The liberty of man, 
though subordinate to God's decree, freely willeth the very same 
thing and no other than that which it would have willed if (upon 
a supposition of impossibility) there had been no decree. " And 
again: "Man acts freely as if there were no decree; yet as in- 
fallibly as if there were no liberty." 3 And Isaac Chauncey, writ- 
ing in 1694, says that God's decree "maintains the liberty of the 
creature's will, that all free agents act as freely according to the 
decree as agents of necessity do act necessarily." 4 It is curious 
to observe that the resolution of the two discordant concepts of 
free choice and of predestination, as it appears in the theologians, 
is purely verbal; it was the result of the inability of the Puritans 
to establish a genuine resolution that their Church declined; yet 
in the poem, while one is reading the poem, the resolution is 
experienced, or to put it otherwise the conviction felt by the poet 
is communicated. I should not like to leave this poem without 
calling attention to the haunting precision with which feeling as 

*The Orthodox Evangelist by John Norton; quoted from History of New 
England Theology, by Frank Hugh Foster (University of Chicago Press, 
1909), first chapter. 

4 The Doctrine Which Is According to Godliness, by Isaac Chauncey, 1694; 
from Foster, first chapter. 


well as dogma is rendered; lines nine to twelve are exceptionally 

Very saw in the surrender to God of the will not only the 
means of salvation, but the sole act of the will acceptable as an 
act of devotion. Similarly, Edwards, from the more strictly Cal- 
vinistic point of view, saw in the doctrine of predestination the 
only doctrine that tended adequately to the glory of God: "Hence 
these doctrines and schemes of divinity that are in any respect 
opposite to such an absolute and universal dependence upon 
God, derogate from his glory, and thwart the design of our re- 
demption. And such are those schemes that . . . own an entire 
dependence upon God for some things, but not for others; they 
own that we depend on God for the Gift and Acceptance of a 
Redeemer, but deny so absolute a dependence on him for the 
obtaining an interest in the Redeemer. . . . They own a de- 
pendence on God for the means of Grace, but not so absolutely 
for the success." 5 

Edwards seems to be guilty of the heresy which he is attacking; 
that is, "trust wi a covenant of works"; for were the dependence 
absolute, no doctrine could thwart our redemption, and no theo- 
logian need come to aid us. It was in the same spirit that Edwards 
brought about a revival in the Puritan Church, that is, induced 
large numbers of sinners to repent, by preaching in language of 
almost unequalled magnificence and terror the doctrine of pre- 
destination and of the inability to repent. It was in the same spirit 
that the Mathers took it upon themselves to rid New England 
of witches. For the exercise of the will, the sense of the moral 
drama, was not at first weakened by the impact of Calvinistic 
dogma, but was excited by the new exaltation of spirit, and as 
the will was excited, so was the study of its proper use neglected 
by a doctrine which denied it and which relegated a belief in the 
efficaciousness of good works to the category of sin, and this dis- 
crepancy led at times to intense and mystical piety on the one 
hand, and frequently to brutal bigotry on the other, the two often 
existing in a single man, as in Cotton Mather. 

6 God Glorified in Man's Redemption, by Jonathan Edwards, 1731; from 
Foster, Chapter II; Edwards' Works, Dwight's Edition, Vol. VII, page 149. 


In Emerson the exercise of the will is as active as ever, and his 
moral judgments are frequently made with force and with accu- 
racy; but his central doctrine is that of submission to emotion, 
which for the pantheist is a kind of divine instigation: an inad- 
missible doctrine, for it eliminates at a stroke both choice and 
the values that serve as a basis for choice, it substitutes for a 
doctrine of values a doctrine of equivalence, thus rendering man 
an automaton and paralyzing all genuine action, so that Emer- 
son's acceptable acts of expression are accidental poems or epi- 
grams drawing their only nutriment from the fringe or from 
beyond the fringe of his doctrine. To understand the difference 
between Very and Emerson at this point, we are forced to en- 
gage at least tentatively in that most precarious of pastimes, psy- 
chological analysis. Very believed that he had surrended himself 
to God, but it was to the God of Christianity, who disapproved 
of surrender to emotion and whose moral standards had been 
revealed; so that Very, if we assume for the moment that there 
was an element of self-delusion in his mysticism, must have 
engaged in a good deal of rapid, efficient, and scarcely conscious 
criticism and selection of his own impulses, and on the basis of 
traditional Christian morality; or if we assume that Very's faith 
in his experience was justified, then it was the same God of 
Christianity who guided him in fact, and presumably on the 
same basis. Emerson, on the other hand, believed that flesh and 
spirit were one, that the universe was divine, and that all im- 
pulses were of divine origin. Emerson's personal acts, like those 
of Very, were qualified by tradition, for he was the descendent 
of a line of clergymen, and his character had been formed by the 
society which they and their kind had formed, so that his im- 
pulses were no doubt virtuous; but his doctrine abandoned the 
last connection with Christianity and the last support for per- 
sonal dignity, and the difference, though it does not appear in his 
life as a man, is already apparent in the whimsical facility of 
feeling to be discerned equally in his prose and in his verse, a 
feeling very different from the austere purity of Very. Emerson 
could write such a poem as Mithridates, for example, with 
enough rhetorical vigor to make it an important part of our lit- 


erary heritage, but with no realization of its implications; it 
required Rimbaud, who probably never heard of the poem, or 
Hart Crane, who probably derived the Emersonian influence in- 
directly, and in some part through Emerson's chief disciple, 
Whitman, to realize the implications of such an attitude in life 
and in art. 

Emerson was the most influential preacher to appear in Amer- 
ica after Edwards, for the lecture platform was merely the ulti- 
mate step in the secularization of the pulpit, a step that was 
inevitable after Unitarianism had displaced Calvinism, and Em- 
erson, moreover, succeeded in focussing upon his romantic amor- 
alism a national religious energy which had been generated by 
a doctrine and by circumstances now equally remote. And he was 
the most widely read and most pungent aphorist to appear in 
America since that other limb of the Devil, Benjamin Franklin. 
The Church, and the spirit which had maintained it, were in 
ruins; and the acceptance of Emerson's doctrine produced a new 
spirit, foreign even to his own, or at least acting in regions be- 
yond his comprehension and in ways that would surely have 
troubled him. 6 In Emerson's day, the practical, if illogical, Cal- 

'This fact has been pointed out by H. B. Parkes (Emerson, Hound and 
Horn V-4), a writer to whom I am more deeply indebted than I can indicate 
in any series of footnotes, not only in respect to Emerson, but in respect to 
other aspects of American thought. Parkes quotes Emerson as saying: "Success 
consists in close appliance to the laws of the world and since those laws are 
intellectual and moral, an intellectual and moral obedience;" and: "Money 
... is, in its effects and laws, as beautiful as roses. Property keeps the accounts 
of the world, and is always moral . . ." and: "An eternal, beneficent necessity 
is always bringing things right." As Parkes adds of this notion, "Among the 
Yankee farmers of Concord it had a little plausibility. But its effect was to 
justify new forces, which were soon to destroy the society in which Emerson 
lived." As an example of the justification to which Parkes refers, one might 
mention that curious novel by Frank Norris, Tine Octopus. In spite of being 
couched in an illiterate style trie book has extraordinary force: the plot displays 
a series of related personal tragedies resulting from the impact upon individual 
lives of a corrupt financial power. The financial magnate responsible justifies 
his actions in Emersonian terms, and the author's representative in the story, 
Presley, enlarges upon this justification in extensive passages that might have 
been plagiarized from the Essays. Norris, however, was so little a literary 
scholar that one is inclined to believe it more likely that he got these passages 
from the philosophical atmosphere of his period than from Emerson's text. 
There is likewise an episode in Melville's work entided The Confidence Man, 
which appears to reflect this aspect of Emerson, but consciously and satirically: 


vinism, which, as an historical fact, had enabled Hawthorne to 
produce The Scarlet Letter, existed only in a few rapidly crum- 
bling islands of culture, such as that to which we owe Emily 
Dickinson; and the mystical Puritanism which had lived in Anne 
Hutchinson and in Jonathan Edwards existed nowhere that we 
can determine save in the spirit of Jones Very. 

That Very should so long have been neglected, that he should 
be left, a century after the production of most of his best poetry, 
to the best defense that one, like myself, at every turn unsympa- 
thetic with his position, is able to offer, is one of the anomalies 
of literary history. Of the sincerity of his profession, we can hold 
no doubt. His best poems are as convincing, and within their 
limits as excellent, as are the poems of Blake, or Traherne, or 
George Herbert. His contemporaries, those who regarded him not 
only in the spirit, but in the flesh, paid his sincerity the highest 
tribute that men can pay to that of any man: they adjudged him 
insane. He voluntarily spent a short time under observation, but 
was discharged. "At the McLean Asylum," says Emerson, "the 
patients severally thanked him when he came away, and told him 
that he had been of great service to them." It was during his 
stay at the asylum that he finished his three essays in literary 
criticism, which, whatever their faults, are beautifully written 
and display great penetration and perfect presence of mind. 

The attitude of the Transcendentalists toward Very is instruc- 
tive and amusing, and it proves beyond cavil how remote he was 
from them. In respect to the doctrine of the submission of the 
will, he agreed with them in principle; but whereas they recom- 
mended the submission, he practiced it, and they regarded him 
with amazement. It is worthy of repetition in this connection, that 
had Emerson accomplished the particular surrender which, as a 
pantheist, he directly or indirectly recommended, he would have 
been mad, that is, an automaton guided by instinct; that the sur- 
render recommended by Emerson when carried no farther than 
it was commonly carried by his disciples, that is, to an uncritical 
exaggeration of the importance of temperament, led to the pas- 

the episode of the mystic, Mark Winsome, and of his disciple, The India 


toral idiosyncrasies of Thoreau, who valued a packing box as 
highly as a house and a scrap of newspaper as highly as Homer, 
or led to the mild idiocy of Alcott, who refused to eat root vegeta- 
bles because they grew downward instead of aspiring upward; 
whereas surrender in Very's terms and we who have never prac- 
ticed Very's surrender may reasonably refrain from offering any 
doubts or other views as to the absolute truth of the terms meant 
an experience of a wholly different order. 

James Freeman Clarke, in his biographical sketch of Very, has 
thus described an encounter between Very and Channing: "I 
was one day at Dr. Channing's house, when he had just received 
a visit from Jones Very. Dr. Channing, like Emerson, was always 
looking for any symptoms of a new birth of spiritual life in the 
land. Having heard of Mr. Very, he invited him to come and 
see him, and inquired what were his views on religious subjects. 
Having listened attentively, he asked him whether it was in con- 
sequence of his invitation or in obedience to the Spirit that he 
came to Boston that morning. Mr. Very answered, 1 was directed 
to accept your invitation/ Then Dr. Channing said, 1 observed 
that during our conversation you left your chair and went while 
speaking to the fireplace, and rested your arm on the mantel. Did 
you do that of your own accord, or in obedience to the Spirit?' 
Very replied, In obedience to the Spirit/ And indeed, if it has 
become a habit of the soul to be led in all things, great and small, 
why not in this, too? Only, I suppose, that most of us would not 
think it worth while to consult the Spirit in such a purely auto- 
matic action as this/* 

That the gulf between Emerson and Very, if not wide, was 
yet immeasurably profound, we may observe from one of Emer- 
son's notes: "When Jones Very was in Concord, he had said to 
me: 1 always felt when I heard you speak, or read your writ- 
ings, that you saw the truth better than others; yet I felt that your 
spirit was not quite right. It was as if a vein of colder air blew 
across me/ He seemed to expect from me once especially in 
Walden Wood a full acknowledgment of his mission, and a 
participation in the same. Seeing this, I asked him if he did not 

see that my thoughts and my position were constitutional, and 
that it would be false and impossible for me to say his things or 
try to occupy his ground as for him to usurp mine? After some 
time and full explanation he conceded this. When I met him aft- 
erwards, one evening at my lecture in Boston, I invited him to 
go home to Mr. A's with me to sleep; which he did. He slept in 
the room adjoining mine. Early next day, in the gray dawn, he 
came into my room and talked while I dressed. He said: 'When 
I was in Concord I tried to say you were also right; but the Spirit 
said you were not right. It is just as if I should say, It is not morn- 
ing, but the Morning says it is the Morning/ " 

Surely no misunderstanding could have been more complete: 
Emerson tried to explain to Very that truth is relative, and Very 
tried to point out to Emerson that truth is absolute. Very had 
been subjected to an overwhelming experience, and he was cer- 
tain of what he had lived; Emerson had had no such experience, 
but by trusting implicitly to the whimsical turns of his thought 
he had arrived at certain beliefs regarding it. Emerson, who was 
interested primarily in thought about the mystical experience, 
and whose attitude toward thought was self-indulgent, could not 
think clearly or coherently; and Very, whose thought was pre- 
cise, if limited, whose attitude toward thought was ascetic, who 
regarded thought as sin, save as directed by the Spirit, accom- 
plished a life of nearly perfect intuition. 

The absolute strangeness of Very to Emerson's group of friends 
may best be shown by another passage from Emerson: "When 
he is in the room with other persons, speech stops, as if there 
were a corpse in the apartment/' 

In the poem entitled Yourself, that is, addressed to the reader, 
Very indicates his awareness of the difficulty that the outsider will 
have in understanding the nature of his communion with the 

But now you hear us talk as strangers, met 
Above the room wherein you lie abed; 
A word perhaps loud spoken you may get, 


Or hear our feet when heavily we tread; 
But he who speaks, or him who's spoken to, 
Must both remain as strangers still to you. 

We may accept Very's explanation of the imperfect audibility, 
since he has every appearance of deep conviction; yet to us in the 
lower room, he none the less remains imperfectly audible, and 
if our life is to be passed in the lower room, we must concern 
ourselves primarily with its conditions, lest, in the dark, we break 
our heads against a door or a cabinet. But while recognizing that 
Very's mystical poetry is imperfectly relevant to us, we may get 
what we can from it, and since that which we can obtain is fre- 
quently of great value, we can scarcely be losers in the relation- 

To the fine anguish which Very suffered from his sense of 
defilement in a sinful world, and to the strange conflict which 
must have lived within him between this feeling which, indeed, 
is the only approach in his poems to a state of mind that might 
be suspected of a quality of insanity and the real humility which 
appears in many of his poems, we may obtain a clue in the ex- 
traordinary poem entitled .Thy Brother's Blood: 

1 have no brother. They who meet me now 

Offer a hand with their own wills defiled, 

And, while they wear a smooth unwrinkled brow, 

Know not that Truth can never be beguiled. 

Go wash the hand that still betrays thy guilt; 

Before the Spirit's gaze what stain can hide? 

Abels red blood upon the earth is spilt, 

And by thy tongue it cannot be denied. 

I hear not with the ear, the heart doth tell 

Its secret deeds to me untold before; 

Go, all its hidden plunder quickly sell, 

Then shalt thou cleanse thee from thy brothers gore, 

Then will I take thy gift; that bloody stain 

Shall not be seen upon thy hand again. 


That this sonnet embodies a personal experience, as we might 
surmise from its tone of rapt obsession, and is not an idealized 
statement, an address delivered dramatically, as it were, by the 
Divine Spirit to fallen man, we may gather from Emerson, who 
reports of Very's conversation as follows: "He says it is with him a 
day of hate: that he discerns the bad element in every person 
whom he meets, which repels him: he even shrinks a little to give 
the hand, that sign of receiving/* 7 The word wills in the second 
line represents a kind of theological pun: in the terminology of 
traditional Christianity, it would mean willful sin; in the strict 
sense of Very's mysticism, it would mean the exercise of the -will. 
If we disregard this second meaning, the poem is in no sense 
bound to Very's theology, but is comprehensible in traditional 
terms; it is abnormal not in its thoughts but only in the intense 
egocentricity of its feeling. This feeling might or might not verge 
on insanity; it is, however, comprehensible as one extreme of reli- 
gious experience; and it is here rendered with a purity, direct- 
ness, and intensity but seldom equalled in English devotional 

The following poem, The Garden, is restrained and precise in 
its imagery, and may conceivably find few admirers; an appre- 
ciation of its beauty depends upon a realization of the mystical 
significance, or some part of it, back of the description. Though 
my own sympathy with the author's religious views is largely one 
of a kind of hypothetical acquiescence, the poem nevertheless 
seems very fine to me. Regardless of the intrinsic merits of the 
piece, however, it is valuable as an introduction to certain other 
poems in which the rapt contemplation of natural landscape is in 
some measure offered as the equivalent, or at least as the best 
available poetic substitute, for the contemplation of God achieved 
by the mystic. 

I saw the spot where our first parents dwelt; 
And yet it wore to me no face of change. 

'This passage and all others quoted herein from Emerson appear in his 
Journals and are quoted by Andrews in his memoir of 1883. 

And while amid its fields and groves, I felt 

As if I had not sinned, nor thought it strange; 

My eye seemed lout a part of every sight, 

My ear heard music in each sound that rose; 

Each sense forever found a new delight, 

Such as the spirit's vision only knows; 

Each act some new and ever-varying joy 

Did by my Father's love for me prepare; 

To dress the spot my ever fresh employ, 

And in the glorious whole with Him to share; 

No more without the flaming gate to stray, 

No more for sin's dark stain the debt of death to pay. 

The next poem, The Lost, is one of the author's four or five 
most beautiful; it appears to go close to the heart of the mystical 
experience, and in spite of the obscurity resulting is unforget- 
table. The use of natural landscape in this poem and in one or 
two others might seem to lend some support to the idea that Em- 
erson had drawn Very toward pantheism, but the argument is a 
weak one. First of all, mystical poets have always found them- 
selves forced to employ analogy in dealing with the mystical ex- 
perience: St. John of the Cross, as well as Crashaw in his great 
poem on Saint Theresa, employed the analogy of sexual love, a 
common analogy in Catholic tradition. Edwards, in telling of his 
religious experience, tells of the intense pleasure that he received 
from the contemplation of natural landscape: he exulted in this 
physical beauty as the workmanship of God, but the feeling is so 
intense that he appears at moments to see God in his works; the 
attitude is something between the attitude of Very when he 
writes in The Garden, "And in the glorious whole with Him to 
share/' and Very in the more rapt and perhaps more confused 
condition of The Lost, in which God and His Garden are scarcely 
distinguished. The mystical experience is by definition incom- 
municable; to the lay mind it may appear a form of self-delusion. 
In any event, the inevitable technique of approximating it by 
analogy, if one is to deal with it at all, leads of necessity to a meas- 

ure of falsification in one way or another; this procedure is part 
of the tradition of Christian poetry, and the fact that Very's 
analogy led him in the direction of pantheistic imagery in a few 
poems is insufficient to convict him qf pantheism, in the lack of 
additional evidence, and in the face of the vast bulk of his ex- 
plicitly Christian statement. 

The subject of the poem is identity with God, and hence with 
all time and place, of the divine life in the unchanging present 
of eternity; or rather, the subject is the comparison of that life 
with the life of man, "the lost." The nature of the state of beati- 
tude is of necessity communicated but very imperfectly; the core 
of the poem is a radiant and concentrated cloud of obscurity. 
The longing for beatitude, however, is a normal and comprehen- 
sible human experience, and though it is communicated largely 
by indirect means in this poem, it is communicated with extraor- 
dinary power. The obscurity, the imperfection, of the poem is 
as slight as the treatment of the mystical theme permits; few 
mystical poems, on the other hand, have expressed as wide a 
margin of comprehensible experience, and few have been written 
with such luminous directness and power. The mysterious and 
subdued longing expressed in the poem culminates, perhaps in 
lines five and six, and again in lines nine and ten, and the reader 
may possibly work his way into the poem best by concentrating 
for a moment on these lines: 

The fairest day that ever yet has shone, 
Will he when thou the day within shalt see; 
The fairest rose that ever yet has hlown, 
When thou the flower thou lookest on shalt he; 
But thou art far away among Times toys; 
Thyself the day thou lookest for in them, 
Thyself the flower that now thine eye enjoys, 
But wilted now thou hangst upon thy stem. 
The hird thou hearest on the hudding tree, 
Thou hast made sing with thy forgotten voice; 
But when it swells again to melody, 

The song is thine in which thou wilt rejoice; 
And thou new risen midst these wonders live 
That now to them dost all thy substance give. 

The same subject and imagery recur in the poem entitled Today, 
a lovely but less finished performance: 

I live hut in the present, where art thou? 
Hast thou a home in some past, future year? 
I call to thee from every leafy bough, 
But thou art far away and canst not hear. 

Each flower lifts up its red or yellow head, 
And nods to thee as thou art passing by: 
Hurry not on, but stay thine anxious tread, 
And thou shalt live with me, for there am I. 

The stream that murmurs by thee, heed its voice, 
Nor stop \hine ear; 'tis I that bid it flow; 
And thou with its glad waters shalt rejoice. 
And of the life I live within them know. 

And hill, and grove, and flowers, and running stream, 
When thou dost live with them shall look more fair; 
And thou awake as from a cheating dream, 
The life today with me and mine to share. 

The New Man, a companion-piece to The Lost, which appears 
only in the edition of 1886, like The Hand and Foot, the first 
poem quoted in this essay, treats the converse of this theme, or 
the experience of achieving salvation : 

The hands must touch and handle many things, 
The eyes long waste their glances all in vain; 
The feet course still in idle, mazy rings, 
Ere man himself, the lost, shall back regain 
The hand that ever moves, the eyes that see, 


While day holds out his shining lamp on high, 

And, strait as flies the honey-seeking bee, 

Direct the feet to unseen flowers they spy; 

These, when they come, the man revealed from heaven, 

Shall labor all the day in quiet rest 

And flnd at eve the covert duly given, 

Where with the bird they find sweet sleep and rest, 

That shall their wasted strength to health restore, 

And bid them seek with morn the hills and fields once more. 

Much of Very's Nature poetry, especially of his later work, is 
merely dull; the best of it resembles that of Blake, but is less 
excellent. Nature, as in Blake, is seen through a daze of beatitude 
and with only occasional clarity of outline. Nevertheless, there 
are lovely passages. The following lines are from the sonnet en- 
titled To the Pure All Things Are Pure: 

Nature shall seem another house of thine, 
When he who formed thee bids thee live and play, 
And in thy rambles, een the creeping vine 
Shall keep with thee a jocund holiday. 

This passage is from The Song: 

1 plunge me in the rivers cooling wave, 

Or on the embroidered bank admiring lean, 

Now some endangered insect life to save, 

Now watch the pictured flowers and grasses green; 

Forever playing where a boy I played, 

By hill and grove, by field and stream delayed. 

Equally lovely are The Wild Rose of Plymouth, The Fair Morn- 
ing (as it appears in the edition of 1886), and The Lament of 
the Flowers (which appears only in the edition of 1886), a curi- 
ously haunting poem, too long to quote in full and too elusive to 
quote in part. In Autumn Flowers, the natural description be- 
comes a firm moral allegory; the poem is nearly one of the best. 


Yet was there not some excuse for t4ie disturbed clergymen 
of New England, who, when Very called upon them in their 
studies and exhorted them to a more devout life, believed him a 
madman? The clergymen did not represent civilization and the 
moral life, exactly, but they represented what was left of civiliza- 
tion and the moral life in New England they were at least the 
ruined dust of tradition and Very, though a living spirit, was 
primarily representative of something else. He was not mad, but 
he existed in a state resembling madness from a strictly moralis- 
tic point of view; he denied the existence, so far as practical be- 
havior was concerned, of the whole world of judgment and of 
choice; he was like Parmenides, who, having proven the uni- 
verse by logic to be a perfect and motionless sphere, and having 
observed about him a universe which did not conform to the 
definition, pronounced the latter an illusion and turned his back 
upon it forever. 

But in that illusion we live from day to day; and in that life 
of illusion we govern ourselves by judgment and by choice; and 
should we deny or lose control of these, the illusion would be- 
come a horror. A Very, a Traherne, or a Blake, is a luxury which 
we can well afford so long as he refrains from making converts. 
Should he convert us all, he would certainly be destroyed along 
with us, or so, to us, in our darkness, it must needs appear. But 
secure and unimpeded in our universe, which he deplores, he 
expresses one limited aspect of our spiritual life, an aspect which, 
to express well, he must live fully. The Roman Church has can- 
nonized individual mystics, but has suppressed or excommuni- 
cated the mystical sects. 

But Very seldom preached, like Emerson; rather, he gave us 
his life: he is a mystic, not a sectary and a reformer. It is true 
that he argued with Emerson in the woods and with the clergy- 
men in their studies, but the efforts were rare, brief, and private; 
he had no access, such as Emerson had, to the general public, and 
he sought for none. His poems sometimes employ the rhetorical 
forms of exhortation, but the substance is the substance of per- 
sonal experience: he expressed his own experience of beatitude, 
or his longing for the experience, or his pity for us, the lost, the 


dead. Emerson, if he was to concern himself with mysticism at all, 
could do no other than reform, for he had no mystical life to give : 
if we are to judge him by his writing, he never experienced that 
which he recommended, and judged in his own terms he was a 
failure. His poetry deals not with the experience, but Math his 
own theory of the experience; it is not mystical poetry but gnomic 
or didactic, poetry, and as the ideas expounded will not stand 
inspection, the poetry is ultimately poor in spite of a good deal of 
vigorous phrasing. Or to put it another way, Very speaks with 
the authority of experience and this holds true, even if we feel 
less certain than Very as to the origin of the experience whereas 
Emerson claims to speak with the authority of thought, but he 
lacks that authority. 

Yet the measure of Emerson's failure may seem at times the 
measure of the superiority of at least a little of his poetry to the 
work of Very, at any rate to those of us who inhabit the lower 
room, the chamber of illusions, and endeavor to keep it in order 
that the mystic on the floor above us may suffer as little incon- 
venient disturbance as possible. For Emerson's failure drove him 
to examine at odd moments the broken shards and tablets buried 
in his character from an earlier culture. He was by accident and 
on certain occasions a moral poet, and he was by natural talent 
a poet of a good deal of power. When we come from the more 
purely mystical works of Very to The Concord Hymn, or to 
Days, we may feel that we are entering a world of three dimen- 
sions, of solid obstacles, and of comprehensible nobility. 

But we have not done with Very so easily. Emerson at the core 
is a fraud and a sentimentalist, and his fraudulence impinges at 
least lightly upon everything he wrote: when it disappears from 
the subject, it lingers in the tone; even when he brings his very 
real talent to bear upon a thoroughly sound subject, he does so 
with a manner at once condescending and casual, a manner of 
which the justification, such as it is, may be found in his essays, 
but of which the consequence is a subtle degradation of the 
poetic art. Very at the core is a saint; though he is no more often 
successful than is many another poet, yet he invariably gives the 
impression of a conscientious effort to render exactly that which 


he has to say. Very believed that his poems, like his actions, were 
dictated by a higher power; but, as I have already shown, the 
power was not the same as that to which Emerson owed alle- 
giance. Very's poetry, like his life, was founded on a belief in 
Absolute Truth; and either Very (without perhaps wholly re- 
alizing it), or the Power that directed him, displayed the con- 
science, the seriousness, of the artist. 

When he brings his character to bear upon matters that we can 
understand, we find ourselves, for all our doubts, in the presence 
of one of the finest devotional poets in English. The following 
poem, The Created, is probably the best single poem that Very 

There is naught for thee by thy haste to gain; 

'Tis not the swift with me that win the race; 

Through long endurance of delaying pain, 

Thine opened eye shall see thy Fathers face; 

Nor here nor there, where now thy feet would turn, 

Thou ibilt find Him who ever waits for thee; 

But let obedience quench desires that burn, 

And where thou art thy Father too will be. 

Behold! as day by day the spirit grows, 

Thou seest by inward light things hid before; 

Till what God is, thyself. His image shows; 

And thou wilt wear the robe that first thou wore, 

When bright with radiance from his forming hand, 

He saw the lord of all His creatures stand. 

We have here perfection of structure, perfection and power of 
phrase, great moral scope, at least by way of generality of im- 
plication, and sublimity of conception. The intention of this 
poem must have been purely Calvinistic; yet the second quatrain, 
in which the Calvinism is most explicit, is stated in terms so 
general that it might equally well be interpreted as a traditional 
recommendation of humility and endurance; the term, "inward 
light/* though it is a more or less technical term of Calvinism 
and of Quietism, has figuratively a very wide applicability; the 


third line of the poem, though it is in the tradition of Calvinistic 
exhortation, exceeds any rigorous and literal interpretation of Cal- 
vinistic dogma, for it recommends a course of action as a means 
to salvation. In this poem, then, we see the religious experience 
expressed fully and richly, unhampered by the heretical dogmas 
of the author. 

Nor is the vision of the resurrection an obstacle to the non- 
believer, for it may, as in so much devotional but non-mystical 
poetry, be accepted merely as an allegorical representation of a 
moral state of the condition of Socrates just before drinking the 
hemlock instead of a few hours later. 

Equally perfect, but of less power, is a hymn entitled The 
Visit; nearly as perfect is a song, The Call, of which the last 
stanza is missing from the edition of 1883; less perfect still, and 
less compact, but of a magnificence at moments comparable to 
that of Henry Vaughan, is a hymn entitled The Coming of the 
Lord. There are other poems, which, because of imperfections or 
limitations of scope, are of secondary importance, but which are 
still worthy of examination: The Presence, The Still-Born (which 
appears only in the edition of 1886), The Son, In Him We Live, 
The Earth, The New Birth, The New World, The Morning 
Watch, The Dead, The Prison, Enoch, and The Cottage; and 
there are doubtless others. 

I might endeavor to illustrate Very's genius further by the quo- 
tation of a good many fine lines from the poems I have just men- 
tioned, but the procedure would be largely unjust, for Very is 
not a poet of separable moments; his poems are reasoned and 
coherent, and the full force of a passage will be evident only 
when one meets it in the context. 8 Further, there is a quality of 
intense personal conviction in Very, a kind of saturation with his 
subject and his feeling, which one tends to lose in a brief passage; 
it is a conviction so extraordinary that in some of his secondary 
achievements it is able to carry a considerable weight of stero- 
typed language without the destruction of the poem. To appre- 
ciate the finer shades of his statement one should be familiar, 

8 See page 344. 


moreover, with his work as a whole, for he is essentially a theo- 
logical poet, and his references to doctrine are on the one hand 
fleeting and subtle, and on the other hand of the utmost im- 
portance to a perception of his beauty; and in addition, his finest 
effects are the result of fine variations in tone, the appreciation 
of which must of necessity depend in a large measure upon a 
consciousness of the norm from which the variations occur. 

Very numbered among his admirers the elder W. E. Channing, 
Emerson, Clarke, Andrews, Norton, Hawthorne, Bryant, and 
other persons of distinction; his contemporaries repeatedly com- 
pared him to George Herbert, and it would appear with at least 
a show of reason. Yet for fifty years he has rested in oblivion, 
except as a name, incorrectly described, in the academic sum- 
maries of his period. It is now fifty-seven years since his death, 
and a hundred years since he first entered upon his full poetic 
power; we are now very close to the centenary of his confinement 
to the asylum at Somerville. In this last, at least, it should be 
possible to find some significance that will justify our recalling 
him to memdry. Perhaps the moral is merely this : that it is nearly 
time that we paid him the apology long due him and established 
him clearly and permanently in his rightful place in the history 
of our literature. 



and The Limits of Judgment 

Antiquest felt at noon 
When August, burning low, 
Calls forth this spectral canticle, 
Repose to typify. 

WHEN THE POEMS of Emily Dickinson first began to appear, in 
the years shortly following her death, she enjoyed a period of 
notoriety and of semi-popularity that endured for perhaps ten 
years; after about ten years of semi-obscurity, her reputation was 
revived with the publication of The Single Hound, and has lasted 
unabated to the present day, though with occasional signs that it 
may soon commence to diminish. A good many critics have re- 
sented her reputation, and it has not been hard for them to jus- 
tify their resentment; probably no poet of comparable reputation 
has been guilty of so much unpardonable writing. On the other 
hand, one cannot shake off the uncomfortable feeling that her 
popularity has been mainly due to her vices; her worst poems are 
certainly her most commonly praised, and as a general matter, 
great lyric poetry is not widely read or admired. 

The problem of judging her better poems is much of the time 
a subtle one. Her meter, at its worst that is, most of the time- 
is a kind of stiff sing-song; her diction, at its worst, is a kind of 
poetic nursery jargon; and there is a remarkable continuity of 
manner, of a kind nearly indescribable, between her worst and 
her best poems. The following poem will illustrate the defects in 
perfection : 

Z like to see it lap the miles, 
And lick the valleys up, 

And stop to feed itself at tanks; 
And then, prodigious, step 

Around a pile of mountains, 
And, supercilious, peer 
In shanties by the sides of roads; 
And then a quarry pare 

To fit its sides, and crawl between, 
Complaining all the while 
In horrid, hooting stanza; 
Then chase itself down hill 

And neigh like Boanerges; 
Then, punctual as a star, 
Stop docile and omnipotent 
At its own stable door. 

The poem is abominable; and the quality of silly playfulness 
which renders it abominable is diffused more or less perceptibly 
throughout most of her work, and this diffusion is facilitated by 
the limited range of her metrical schemes. 

The difficulty is this: that even in her most nearly perfect 
poems, even in those poems in which the defects do not intrude 
momentarily in a crudely obvious form, one is likely to feel a 
fine trace of her countrified eccentricity; there is nearly always a 
margin of ambiguity in our final estimate of even her most ex- 
traordinary work, and though the margin may appear to dimin- 
ish or disappear in a given reading of a favorite poem, one feels 
no certainty that it will not reappear more obviously with the 
next reading. Her best poems, quite unlike the best poems of Ben 
Jonson, of George Herbert, or of Thomas Hardy, can never be 
isolated certainly and defensibly from her defects; yet she is a 
poetic genius of the highest order, and this ambiguity in one's 
feeling about her is profoundly disturbing. The following poem 
is a fairly obvious illustration; we shall later see less obvious: 

I started early, took my dog, 
And visited the sea; 
The mermaids in the basement 
Came out to look at me, 

And frigates in the upper floor 
Extended hempen hands, 
Presuming me to loe a mouse 
Aground, upon the sands. 

But no man moved me till the tide 
Went past my simple shoe, 
And past my apron and my belt, 
And past my bodice too, 

And made as he would eat me up 
As wholly as a dew 
Upon a dandelions sleeve 
And then I started too. 

And he he followed close behind; 
I felt his silver heel 
Upon my ankle, then my shoes 
Would overflow with pearl. 

Until we met the solid town, 
No man he seemed to know; 
And bowing with a mighty look 
At me, the sea withdrew. 

The mannerisms are nearly as marked as in the first poem, 
but whereas the first poem was purely descriptive, this poem is 
allegorical and contains beneath the more or less mannered sur- 
face an ominously serious theme, so that the manner appears in 
a new light and is somewhat altered in effect. The sea is here the 
traditional symbol of death; that is, of all the forces and quali- 


ties in nature and in human nature which tend toward the disso- 
lution of human character and consciousness. The playful pro- 
tagonist, the simple village maiden, though she speaks again in 
the first person, is dramatized, as if seen from without, and her 
playfulness is somewhat restrained and formalized. Does this 
formalization, this dramatization, combined with a major sym- 
bolism, suffice effectually to transmute in this poem the quality 
discerned in the first poem, or does that quality linger as a fine 
defect? The poem is a poem of power; it may even be a great 
poem; but this is not to answer the question. 1 have never been 
able to answer the question. 

Her poetic subject matter might be subdivided roughly as fol- 
lows: natural description; the definition of moral experience, 
including the definition of difficulties of comprehension; and 
mystical experience, or the definition of the experience of "im- 
mortality," to use a favorite word, or of beatitude. The second 
subdivision includes a great deal, and her best work falls within 
it; I shall consider it last. Her descriptive poems contain here 
and there brilliant strokes, but she had the hard and uncompro- 
mising approach to experience of the early New England Calvin- 
ists; lacking all subtlety, she displays the heavy hand of one unac- 
customed to fragile objects; her efforts at lightness are distressing. 
Occasionally, instead of endeavoring to treat the small subject 
in terms appropriate to it, she endeavors to treat it in terms appro- 
priate to her own temperament, and we have what appears a 
deliberate excursion into obscurity, the subject being inadequate 
to the rhetoric, as in the last stanza of the poem beginning, "At 
half-past three a single bird" : 

At half-fast seven, element 

Nor implement was seen, 

And place was where the presence was, 

Circumference between. 

The stanza probably means, roughly, that bird and song alike 
have disappeared, but the word "circumference," a resonant and 
impressive one, is pure nonsense. 

This unpredictable boldness in plunging into obscurity, a bold- 
ness in part, perhaps, inherited from the earlier New Englanders 
whose sense of divine guidance was so highly developed, whose 
humility of spirit was commonly so small; a boldness dramatized 
by Melville in the character of Ahab; this congenital boldness 
may have led her to attempt the rendering of purely theoretic 
experience, the experience of life after death. There are numer- 
ous poems which attempt to express the experience of posthu- 
mous beatitude, as if she were already familiar with it; the poetic 
terms of the expression are terms, either abstract or concrete, of 
human life, but suddenly fixed, or approaching fixation, as if at 
the cessation of time in eternity, as if to the dead the living world 
appeared as immobile as the dead person appears to the living, 
and the fixation frequently involves an element of horror: 

Great streets of silence led away 
To neighborhoods of pause; 
Here was no notice, no dissent, 
No universe, no laws. 

By clocks 'twas morning, and for night 
The bells at distance called; 
But epoch had no basis here, 
For period exhaled. 

The device here employed is to select a number of terms rep- 
resenting familiar abstractions or perceptions, some of a com- 
monplace nature, some relatively grandiose or metaphysical, and 
one by one to negate these terms; a number of statements, from 
a grammatical point of view, have been made, yet actually no 
concrete image emerges, and the idea of the poem the idea of 
the absolute dissidence of the eternal from the temporal is stated 
indirectly, and, in spite of the brevity of the poem and the gnomic 
manner, with extraordinary redundancy. We come painfully 
close in this poem to the irresponsible playfulness of the poem 
about the railway train; we have gone beyond the irresponsible 
obscurity of the poem about the bird. 


This is technically a mystical poem: that is, it endeavors to 
render an experience the rapt contemplation, eternal and im- 
movable, which Aquinas describes as the condition of beatitude 
which is by definition foreign to all human experience, yet to 
render it in terms of a modified human experience. Yet there is 
no particular reason to believe that Emily Dickinson was a mystic, 
or thought she was a mystic. The poems of this variety, and 
there are many of them, appear rather to be efforts to drama- 
tize an idea of salvation, intensely felt, but as an idea, not as 
something experienced, and as an idea essentially inexpressible. 
She deliberately utilizes imagery irrelevant to the state with 
which she is concerned, because she cannot do otherwise; yet the 
attitude toward the material, the attitude of rapt contemplation, 
is the attitude which she presumably expects to achieve toward 
something that she has never experienced. The poems are in- 
variably forced and somewhat theoretical; they are briskly clever, 
and lack the obscure but impassioned conviction of the mystical 
poems of Very; they lack the tragic finality, the haunting sense 
of human isolation in a foreign universe, to be found in her 
greatest poems, of which the explicit theme is a denial of this 
mystical trance, is a statement of the limits of judgment. 

There are a few curious and remarkable poems representing a 
mixed theme, of which the following is perhaps the finest ex- 

Because I could not stop for Death, 
He kindly stopped for me; 
The carriage held lout just ourselves 
And Immortality. 

We slowly drove, he knew no haste, 
And I had put away 
My labor, and my leisure too, 
For his civility. 

We passed the school where children played 
At wrestling in a ring; 


We passed the fields of gazing grain, 
We passed the setting sun. 

We paused before a house that seemed 
A swelling of the ground; 
The roof was scarcely visible, 
The cornice but a mound. 

Since then 'tis centuries; but each 
Feels shorter than the day 
1 first surmised the horses heads 
Were toward eternity. 

In the fourth line we find the familiar device of using a major ab- 
straction in a somewhat loose and indefinable manner; in the last 
stanza there is the semi-playful pretence of familiarity with the 
posthumous experience of eternity, so that the poem ends un- 
convincingly though gracefully, with a formulary gesture very 
roughly comparable to that of the concluding couplet of many an 
Elizabethan sonnet of love; for the rest the poem is a remarkably 
beautiful poem on the subject of the daily realization of the im- 
minence of death it is a poem of departure from life, an intensely 
conscious leave-taking. In so far as it concentrates on the life that 
is being left behind, it is wholly successful; in so far as it attempts 
to experience the death to come, it is fraudulent, however ex- 
quisitely, and in this it falls below her finest achievement. Allen 
Tate, who appears to be unconcerned with this fraudulent ele- 
ment, praises the poem in the highest terms; he appears almost to 
praise it for its defects : * "The sharp gazing before grain instils into 
nature a kind of cold vitality of which the qualitative richness has 
infinite depth. The content of death in the poem eludes forever 
any explicit definition . . . she has presented a typical Christian 
theme in all its final irresolution, without making any final state- 
ment about it." The poem ends in irresolution in the sense that 
it ends in a statement that is not offered seriously; to praise the 

1 Reactionary Essays on Poetry and Ideas, by Allen Tate. Scribners, 1936. 
The essay on Emily Dickinson. 


poem for this is unsound criticism, however. It is possible to solve 
any problem of insoluble experience by retreating a step and de- 
fining the boundary at which comprehension ceases, and by then 
making the necessary moral adjustments to that boundary; this 
in itself is an experience both final and serious, and it is the ex- 
perience on which our author's finest work is based. 

Let me illustrate by citation. The following poem defines the 
subject which the mystical poems endeavor to conceal : the soul 
is taken to the brink of the incomprehensible, and is left there, 
for retreat is impossible, and advance is impossible without a 
transmutation of the soul's very nature. The third and fourth 
lines display the playful redundancy of her weaker poems, but 
the intrusion of the quality here is the result of habit, and is a 
minor defect; there is nothing in the conception of the poem de- 
manding a compromise. There is great power in the phrasing of 
the remainder of the poem, especially in the middle stanza: 

Our journey had advanced; 
% Our feet were almost come 

To that odd fork in Beings road, 
Eternity by term. 

Our face took sudden awe, 
Our feet reluctant led. 
Before were cities, but between 
The forest of the dead. 

Retreat was out of hope, 
Behind, a sealed route, 
Eternity's white flag before, 
And God at every gate. 

She is constantly defining the absolute cleavage between the 
living and the dead. In the following poem the definition is made 
more powerfully, and in other terms: 

f Twas warm at first, like us, 
Until there crept thereon 

A chill, like frost upon a glass, 
Till all the scene be gone. 

The forehead copied stone, 
The fingers grew too cold 
To ache, and like a skaters brook 
The busy eyes congealed. 

It straightened that was all- 
It crowded cold to cold- 
It multiplied indifference 
As Pride were all it could. 

And even when with cords 
'Twas lowered like a freight, 
It made no signal, nor demurred, 
But dropped like adamant. 

The stiffness of phrasing, as in the barbarously constructed fourth 
and twelfth lines, is allied to her habitual carelessness, yet in 
this poem there is at least no triviality, and the imagery of the 
third stanza in particular has tremendous power. 

The poem beginning, "The last night that she lived/' treats 
the same theme in more personal terms; the observer watches the 
death of a friend, that is follows the friend to the brink of the 
comprehensible, sees her pass the brink, and faces the loss. The 
poem contains a badly mixed figure and at least two major gram- 
matical blunders, in addition to a little awkward inversion of an 
indefensible variety, yet there is in the poem an immediate seizing 
of terrible fact, which makes it, at least f ragmen tarily, very great 

And we, we placed the hair, 

And drew the head erect; 

And then an awful leisure was, 

Our faith to regulate. 

Her inability to take Christian mysticism seriously did not, 
however, drive her to the opposite extreme of the pantheistic 


mysticism which was seducing her contemporaries. The follow- 
ing lines, though not remarkable poetry, are a clear statement of 
a position consistently held: 

But nature is a stranger yet; 

The ones that cite her most 
Have never passed her haunted house, 

Nor simplified her ghost. 

To pity those that know her not 

Is helped by the regret 
That those who know her, knoiv her less 

The nearer her they get. 

Nature as a symbol, as Allen Tate has pointed out in the essay 
to which I have already referred, remains immitigably the symbol 
of all the elements which corrupt, dissolve, and destroy human 
character and consciousness; to approach nature is to depart from 
the fullness of human life, and to join nature is to leave human 
life. Nature may thus be a symbol of death, representing much 
the same idea as the corpse in the poem beginning " 'Twas warm 
at first, like us," but involving a more complex range of associa- 

In the following poem, we are shown the essential cleavage 
between man, as represented by the author-reader, and nature, 
as represented by the insects in the late summer grass; the sub- 
ject is the plight of man, the willing and freely moving entity, 
in a universe in which he is by virtue of his essential qualities 
a foreigner. The intense nostalgia of the poem is the nostalgia 
of man for the mode of being which he perceives imperfectly 
and in which he cannot share. The change described in the last 
two lines is the change in the appearance of nature and in the 
feeling of the observer which results from a recognition of the 

Farther in summer than the birds, 
Pathetic from the grass, 

A minor nation celebrates 
Its unobtrusive mass. 

No ordinance is seen, 

So gradual the grace, 

A pensive custom it becomes, 

Enlarging loneliness. 

Antiquest felt at noon 
When August, burning low, 
Calls forth this spectral canticle, 
Repose to typify. 

Remit as yet no grace, 
No furrow on the glow, 
Yet a druidic difference 
Enhances nature now. 

The first two lines of the last stanza are written in the author's 
personal grammatical short-hand; they are no doubt defective in 
this respect, but the defect is minor. They mean : There is as yet 
no diminution of beauty, no mark of change on the brightness. 
The twelfth line employs a meaningless inversion. On the other 
hand, the false rhymes are employed with unusually fine modu- 
lation; the first rhyme is perfect, the second and third represent 
successive stages of departure, and the last a return to what is 
roughly the stage of the second. These effects are complicated 
by the rhyming, both perfect and imperfect, from stanza to stanza. 
The intense strangeness of this poem could not have been 
achieved with standard rhyming. The poem, though not quite 
one of her most nearly perfect, is probably one of her five or six 
greatest, and is one of the most deeply moving and most unfor- 
gettable poems in my own experience; I have the feeling of 
having lived in its immediate presence for many years. 

The three poems which combine her greatest power with her 
finest execution are strangely on much the same theme, both as 
regards the idea embodied and as regards the allegorical embodi- 


ment. They deal with the inexplicable fact of change, of the ab- 
solute cleavage between successive states of being, and it is not 
unnatural that in two of the poems this theme should be related 
to the theme of death. In each poem, seasonal change is em- 
ployed as the concrete symbol of the moral change. This is not 
the same thing as the so-called pathetic fallacy of the romantics, 
the imposition of a personal emotion upon a physical object in- 
capable either of feeling such an emotion or of motivating it in 
a human being. It is rather a legitimate and traditional form of 
allegory, in which the relationships between the items described 
resemble exactly the relationships between certain moral ideas or 
experiences; the identity of relationship evoking simultaneously 
and identifying with each other the feelings attendant upon both 
series as they appear separately. Here are the three poems, in the 
order of the seasons employed, and in the order of increasing 
complexity both of theme and of technique: 


A light exists in spring 
Not present in the year 
At any other period. 
When March is scarcely here 

A color stands abroad 

On solitary hills 

That science cannot overtake, 

But human nature feels. 

It waits upon the lawn; 
It shows the furthest tree 
Upon the furthest slope we know; 
It almost speaks to me. 

Then, as horizons step, 
Or noons report away, 


Without the formula of sound, 
It passes, and we stay: 

A quality of loss 

Affecting our content, 

As trade had suddenly encroached 

Upon a sacrament. 

As imperceptibly as grief 
The Summer lapsed away, 
Too imperceptible, at last, 
To seem like perfidy. 

A quietness distilled, 

As twilight long begun, 

Or Nature, spending with herself 

Sequestered afternoon. 

The dusk drew earlier in, 
The morning foreign shone, 
A courteous, yet harrowing grace, 
As guest who would be gone. 

And thus, without a wing, 

Or service of a keel, 

Our summer made her light escape 

Into the beautiful. 

There's a certain slant of light, 
On winter afternoons, 


That oppresses, like the weight 
Of cathedral tunes. 

Heavenly hurt it gives us; 
We can find no scar, 
But internal difference 
Where the meanings are. 

None may teach it anything, 
'Tis the seal, despair, 
An imperial affliction 
Sent us of the air. 

When it comes,, the landscape listens, 
Shadows hold their breath; 
When it goes, 'tis like the distance 
On the look of death. 

In the seventh, eighth, and twelfth lines of the first poem, and, 
it is barely possible, in the seventh and eighth of the third, there 
is a very slight echo of the brisk facility of her poorer work; the 
last line of the second poem, perhaps, verges ever so slightly on 
an easy prettiness of diction, though scarcely of substance. These 
defects are shadowy, however; had the poems been written by 
another writer, it is possible that we should not observe them. 
On the other hand, the directness, dignity, and power with 
which these major subjects are met, the quality of the phrasing, 
at once clairvoyant and absolute, raise the poems to the highest 
level of English lyric poetry. 

The meter of these poems is worth careful scrutiny. The basis 
of all three is the so-called Poulter's Measure, first employed, if 
I remember aright, by Surrey, and after the time of Sidney in 
disrepute. It is the measure, however, not only of the great elegy 
on Sidney commonly attributed to Fulke Greville, but of some of 
the best poetry between Surrey and Sidney, including the fine 
poem by Vaux on contentment and the great poem by Gascoigne 
in praise of a gentlewoman of dark complexion. The English 

poets commonly though not invariably wrote the poem in two 
long lines instead of four short ones, and the lines so conceived 
were the basis of their rhetoric. In the first of the three poems 
just quoted, the measure is employed without alteration, but 
the short line is the basis of the rhetoric; an arrangement which 
permits of more varied adjustment of sentence to line than if the 
long line were the basis. In the second poem, the first stanza is 
composed not in the basic measure, but in lines of eight, six, 
eight, and six syllables; the shift into the normal six, six, eight, 
and six in the second stanza, as in the second stanza of the poem 
beginning, "Farther in summer/' results in a subtle and beautiful 
muting both of meter and of tone. This shift she employs else- 
where, but especially in poems of four stanzas, to which it ap- 
pears to have a natural relationship; it is a brilliant technical in- 

In the third poem she varies her simple base with the ingenu- 
ity and mastery of a virtuoso. In the first stanza, the two long 
lines are reduced to seven syllables each, by the dropping of the 
initial unaccented syllable; the second short line is reduced to 
five syllables in the same manner. In the second stanza, the first 
line, which ought now to be of six syllables, has but five metrical 
syllables, unless we violate normal usage and count the second 
and infinitely light syllable of Heaven, with an extrametrical syl- 
lable at the end, the syllable dropped being again the initial one; 
the second line, which ought to have six syllables, has likewise 
lost its initial syllable, but the extrametrical us of the preceding 
line, being unaccented, is in rhythmical effect the first syllable of 
the second line, so that this syllable serves a double and ambigu- 
ous function it maintains the syllable-count of the first line, in 
spite of an altered rhythm, and it maintains the rhythm of the 
second line in spite of the altered syllable-count. The third and 
fourth lines of the second stanza are shortened to seven and five. 
In the third stanza the first and second lines are constructed like 
the third and fourth of the second stanza; the third and fourth 
lines like the first and second of the second stanza, except that 
in the third line the initial unaccented position is filled and we 
have a light anapest; that is, the third stanza repeats the con- 


struction of the second, but in reverse order. The final stanza is a 
triumphant resolution of the three preceding: the first and third 
lines, like the second and fourth, are metrically identical; the 
first and third contain seven syllables each, with an additional 
extrametrical syllable at the end which takes the place of the 
missing syllable at the beginning of each subsequent short line, 
at the same time that the extrametrical syllable functions in the 
line in which it is written as part of a two-syllable rhyme. The 
elaborate structure of this poem results in the balanced hesita- 
tions and rapid resolutions which one hears in reading it. This 
is metrical artistry at about as high a level as one is likely to find it. 

Emily Dickinson was a product of the New England tradition 
of moral Calvinism; her dissatisfaction with her tradition led 
to her questioning most of its theology and discarding much of 
it, and led to her reinterpreting some of it, one would gather, in 
the direction of a more nearly Catholic Christianity. Her ac- 
ceptance of Christian moral concepts was unimpaired, and the 
moral tone of her character remained immitigably Calvinistic in 
its hard and direct simplicity. As a result of this Calvinistic tem- 
per, she lacked the lightness and grace which might have en- 
abled her to master minor themes; she sometimes stepped with- 
out hesitation into obscurantism, both verbal and metaphysical. 
But also as a result of it, her best poetry represents a moral adjust- 
ment to certain major problems which are carefully defined; it is 
curious in the light of this fact, and in the light of the discussion 
which they have received, that her love poems never equal her 
highest achievement her best work is on themes more gener- 
alized and inclusive. 

Emily Dickinson differed from every other major New Eng- 
land writer of the nineteenth century, and from every major 
American writer of the century save Melville, of those affected 
by New England, in this: that her New England heritage, 
though it made her life a moral drama, die] not leave her life in 
moral confusion. It impoverished her in one respect, however: 
of all great poets, she is the most lacking in taste; there are in- 
numerable beautiful lines and passages wasted in the desert of 
her crudities; her defects, more than those of any other great 

poet that I have read, are constantly at the brink, or pushing be- 
yond the brink, of her best poems. This stylistic character is the 
natural product of the New England which produced the barren 
little meeting houses; of the New England founded by the harsh 
and intrepid pioneers, who in order to attain salvation trampled 
brutally through a world which they were too proud and too im- 
patient to understand. In this respect, she differs from Melville, 
whose taste was rich and cultivated. But except by Melville, she 
is surpassed by no writer that this country has produced; she is 
one of the greatest lyric poets of all time. 



or Henry James and the Relation of Morals 
to Manners 

"Be careful not to drink at Maules well!" said he. "Neither drink 
nor loathe your face in itl" 

"Maule's welll" answered Phoebe. "Is that it with the rim of mossy 
stones? I have no thought of drinking there hut why not?" 

"Oh" rejoined the daguerreotypist, "because, like an old lady's cup 
of tea, it is water bewitched!" 

The House of the Seven Gables 

THE MOTIVATING IDEAS of most of the novels of Henry James 
might be summarized very briefly, and perhaps a trifle crudely, 
as follows: that there is a moral sense, a sense of decency, inher- 
ent in human character at its best; that this sense of decency, be- 
ing only a sense, exists precariously, and may become confused 
and even hysterical in a crisis; that it may be enriched and cul- 
tivated through association with certain environments; that such 
association may, also, be carried so far as to extinguish the moral 
sense. This last relationship, that of the moral sense to an en- 
vironment which may up to a certain point enrich it and beyond 
that point dissolve it, resembles the ordinary relationship of in- 
tellect to experience, of character to sensibility. 

If we carry these generalizations a little farther into the spe- 
cial terms of his novels, we find, however: that the moral sense 
as James conceives it is essentially American or at least appears to 
James most clearly in American character; that it can be culti- 
vated by association with European civilization and manners; 
that it may be weakened or in some other manner betrayed by an 
excess of such association. 

Superficially this description seems to omit the novels of the 


brief middle period, in which most of the characters were British 
and in which none were American; but actually these novels 
are in nearly every case constructed in much the same terms, for 
the "American" characteristics are given to certain personages, 
and the "European" to certain others. This formula will be some- 
what qualified as we proceed, but I believe that it is essentially 

Now this particular kind of moral sense may have existed in 
Europe as well as in America, but so far as James was concerned, 
it was essentially an American phenomenon: in the first place, 
I believe that I shall be able to show how a degree of intensity 
of this moral sense was an actual and historical development in 
the American context; in the second place, we have in James 
the ultimate and rarefied development of the spiritual antago- 
nism which had existed for centuries between the rising provin- 
cial civilization and the richer civilization from which it had 
broken away, an antagonism in which the provincial civilization 
met the obviously superior cultivation of the parent with a more 
or less typically provincial assertion of moral superiority. The 
same theme obsesses Fenimore Cooper for a large portion of his 
career, though conceived in terms less subtle; it is the same an- 
tagonism which, from pre-Revolutionary days to the present, has 
resulted in the attempt, unhealthy in its self -consciousness and in 
its neurotic intensity, to create a literature which shall be utterly 
independent of that of England; it is the same antagonism which 
has led many of the compatriots of Henry James to disown him 
as a foreigner because of his long residence abroad, and which 
led his western contemporaries of the intellectual stamp of Clem 
ens to despise James in turn for his cultivation and artistry. There 
is further evidence that James conceived this moral sense to be 
essentially American, moreover, in the fact that the moral phe- 
nomenon and its attendant dramatic formula alike were first de- 
fined in the early American period of his art, and that they were 
most fully and richly developed in his last great^ masterpieces, 
The Ambassadors, The Wings of the Dove, and The Golden 

The origin of this moral sense may be given briefly and with 

3 01 

fair certainty, though James himself nowhere defines it: it was 
the product of generations of discipline in the ethical systems of 
the Roman Catholic and Anglo-Catholic Churches, a product 
which subsisted as a traditional way of feeling and of acting after 
the ideas which had formed it, and which, especially in Europe 
and before the settlement of America, had long supported it, 
had ceased to be understood, or, as ideas, valued. The Anglo- 
Catholic Church in New York and farther south, even before 
the Revolutionary War, tended to rely upon society for its sup- 
port, rather than to support society; it was the external sign of 
the respectability of a class, and was scarcely an evangelizing or 
an invigorating force. This phenomenon can be observed in the 
social novels of Cooper, who views it benignantly; and it is men- 
tioned specifically by Mrs. Wharton, whose approval is tempered 
with comprehension, in the opening pages of The Old Maid. In 
this condensed novel, Mrs. Wharton writes as follows: "The 
Ralstons were of middle-class English stock. They had not come 
to the colonies to die for a creed but to live for a bank account. 
The result had*been beyond their hopes, and their religion was 
tinged by their success. An edulcorated Church of England 
which, under the conciliatory name of the 'Episcopal Church of 
the United States of America/ left out the coarser allusions in 
the Marriage Service, slid over the comminatory passages in the 
Athanasian Creed, and thought it more respectful to say 'Our 
Father Who' than 'Which' in the Lord's Prayer, was exactly 
suited to the spirit of compromise whereon the Ralstons had 
built themselves up. There was in all the tribe the same in- 
stinctive recoil from new religions as from unaccounted-for peo- 
ple. Institutional to the core, they represented the conservative 
element that holds new societies together as sea-plants bind the 
seashore/* And a little farther on she writes as follows: "The 
fourth generation of Ralstons had nothing left in the way of 
convictions save an acute sense of honor in private and business 
matters; on the life of the community and the state they took 
their daily views from the newspapers, and the newspapers they 
already despised." 

The moral sense in question, however, might have been a 


much weaker motive, and certainly would not have been an es- 
sentially American motive, had it not been intensified through 
the influence of New England. In New England, the Calvinistic 
theology denied the freedom of the will and the efficaciousness 
of good works that is, it denied the importance of the whole 
subject of morality, at least in formal doctrine but at the same 
time, as a result of its inner inconsistencies and of the practical 
struggles of the Puritans, as I have shown in discussing Haw- 
thorne, it dramatized and intensified the moral struggle in an 
extraordinary manner. Throughout a relatively brief period, per- 
haps for less than a century, the moral sense of New England as 
a whole, and throughout a much longer period the moral sense 
of large segments of New England, was both simplified and in- 
tensified by Calvinistic ideas, at the same time that these ideas, 
because of their inner contradictions, and as they worked, under 
the emotional pressure of the period, in the minds of the subtler 
theologians, were literally proving self-destructive. By 1730 the 
ideas were become so widely ineffective as to alarm the surviving 
faithful. The preachers of the Great Awakening gave them a 
renewed energy, in part intellectual, but primarily emotional, but 
the new energy, being factitious, the result of the impact of a 
new rhetoric rather than of a new clarification, was short-lived. 
Edwards gave them a new and powerful intellectual adjustment, 
but the adjustment was among the ideas themselves, and scarcely 
clarified the increasingly obvious discrepancies between the ideas 
and daily life, so that daily life moved on and left them. The 
ideas killed themselves off, except as they existed, half-under- 
stood, in the remoter village congregations; but the emotional 
energy, the New England conscience, was longer in dying. It 
gave the Unitarian Church its principal claim to dignity; it per- 
sisted even in Emerson, as a private citizen, at the same time that 
Emerson was preaching pantheism, equivalence, and surrender 
to instinct. 

Now except for the Mormon community of Utah, New Eng- 
land was the only part of America in which a church ever exer- 
cised a formative and governing influence upon society, so that 
for certain periods in American history the adjectives Puritan 


and New England are practically interchangeable. Further, New 
England until well into the nineteenth century provided the 
schoolmasters for most of the United States. Van Wyck Brooks 
comments upon this fact in The Flowering of New England; 1 
he says: "Edward Everett Hale relates that a certain French in- 
vestigator, sent by Napoleon III to study American education, 
found that virtually every teacher in the West and South had 
come from one small corner of the couhtry, either Connecticut 
or Massachusetts. He asked Hale to explain this fact, which he 
said was unique in history. Hale, to settle the question, enquired 
of a leading citizen of Massachusetts how many young people 
of his town, when they left school, began as teachers. 'He heard 
me/ says Hale, 'with some impatience, and then said, 'Why all 
of them, of course/* ' " Brooks cites Emerson, in addition, as ad- 
vising "his fellow-townsmen to manufacture school-teachers and 
make them the best in the world/' If one has ever read Satans- 
toe, by Fenimore Cooper, one will scarcely forget Jason New- 
come, the New England schoolmaster who settled in New York, 
nor the inability of Corny Littlepage, the New Yorker, to under- 
stand Jason's belief that the calling of the schoolmaster was both 
respectable and enviable; this in spite of the fact that Jason rep- 
resented the New England conscience in a degraded form, that 
of the caution of the hypocrite. 

Further, New England until the middle of the nineteenth cen- 
tury not only produced at least a fair proportion of the political 
talent of. the nation, but she produced nearly all of the major 
literary talent. If we except Poe, a Southerner, whose literary 
merit nppears to the present writer to be a very frail delusion; 
it we except Irving, a charming writer, but a minor writer at best; 
if we except Cooper, a great writer, and a New Yorker without 
mitigation; we have but two great New York talents after Freneau 
and preceding the Civil War: W. C. Bryant, a New Englander 
in origin, who wrote most of his best work before leaving New 
England; and Herman Melville, whose father and grandfather 
were born in New England, whose mother came of an old 

1 The Flowering of New England, by Van Wyck Brooks, Button, 1936; page 


New York family, who was himself born and raised in New 
York, yet all of whose work was profoundly colored by New Eng- 
land, and whose greatest work was an allegorical epic of New 
England. The influence of New England upon the spiritual life 
of the nation till about 1850 or 1860 may thus be conceded to 
have been extremely great; as a matter of fact it continued much 
later, though with diminishing force. The most remarkable evi- 
dence of its later continuance is the work of Henry James, an- 
other New Yorker; and of this continuance there is ample objec- 
tive evidence, in such characters as Lambert Strether, in that 
unforgettable legend of New England, The Europeans, perhaps 
the most beautiful of James's minor works, and omitted from the 
definitive edition for reasons that must always remain obscure to 
me, and even in The Bostonians for had he not been as familiar 
with the New England conscience as with his own, he could 
scarcely have written such a work and without recourse to the 
historical summary and ethical analysis of which this essay will 

For practical purposes, the New England moral sense was 
merely an intensification of that of New York; like that of New 
York it derived ultimately from the pre-American Catholic dis- 
cipline, but unlike that of New York, or at least of English New 
York, it had experienced a Calvinistic interlude, which intensi- 
fied it, notwithstanding the fact that such an interlude, rationally 
considered, ought to have destroyed it at the time, and notwith- 
standing the additional fact that the interlude, historically con- 
sidered, ultimately did destroy it, but long afterward, by severing 
its connection with the one and only source of its nourishment, 
the Aristotelian ethical tradition, as embodied in the Catholic 
Church. The New England moral sense, then, might readily 
enough be imposed in some measure upon the New Yorker, and 
though it often appeared both obnoxious and ludicrous to him, 
because of the very intensification in question, as we see it ap- 
pearing in Satanstoe, in The Chainbearer, and in The Bos- 
tonians, it none the less influenced and strengthened him in the 
long run, or at least until it began to die in both environments. 
Its death came through the increase of the temporal separation 


from its source, through the corrupting influence of the anti- 
moral philosophy of Emersonian and other romantics, through 
dilution with the post-war inundation of uprooted immigrants, 
through the reversion of influence from the uprooted Americans 
who in tremendous numbers had broken with their traditions 
and moved west, through the inundation of new and imperfectly 
digested scientific knowledge, and through the influence of the 
new financial aristocracy which had arisen after the Civil War 
with great rapidity and by methods in most cases not only im- 
moral and illegal and hence corrupting by way of example, but 
causing a tremendous drain upon the spiritual life of the nation 
through the material impoverishment of great multitudes. 

This moral sense, as it existed about equally in James and in 
his characters, then, was a fine, but a very delicate perception, 
unsupported by any clear set of ideas, and functioning, not only 
in minds of very subtle construction, but at the very crisis in 
history at which it was doomed not only to be almost infinitely 
rarefied but finally to be dissolved in air. Since James conceived 
the art of the^novel primarily in terms of plot, and plot almost 
wholly in terms of ethical choice and of its consequences; since 
he raised the plotting of the novel to a level of seriousness which 
it had never before attained in English; since all intelligent criti- 
cism of James is resolved inevitably into a discussion of plot; 
this moral sense, this crisis in history, will prove, I believe, to 
be the source of the essential problem of James's art. 


James displays in all of his more serious work an unmistakable 
desire to allow his characters unrestricted freedom of choice and 
to develop his plots out of such choice and out of consequent 
acts of choice to which the initial acts may lead. Now absolutely 
considered, no human complex is ever free from a great many 
elements which are without the control and even the under- 
standing of the human participants. We may discover this fact 
very simply if we consider for a moment A Portrait of a Lady. 
We may fairly say that it is chance which brings Madame 


Merle into the lite of Isabel Archer: at any rate, the entrance of 
Madame Merle is a fact in itself of absolutely no ethical ante- 
cedents or significance. On the other hand, we may say that the 
actions of Isabel Archer are in certain respects and up to a cer- 
tain point determined: she is first of all human, and is subject 
to the fundamental necessities of humanity; being a normal 
young woman, she is fairly certain to marry, for example. And 
if she marries, she will in the matter of choice be limited by 
chance that is, she will have to choose from among the men 
whom she happens to know, even if we suppose it to be within 
her power to attract any man whom she desires. Her choice 
within these limits may in a sense be said to be determined as 
perhaps it actually was by a temperamental bent of her own 
which she fails to understand and consider, or by the facts of 
her personal history, which result in certain forms of knowledge 
and certain forms of ignorance, and which may consequently 
lead her to judge a situation on the basis of imperfect knowl- 
edge. The initial tragic error of Hyacinth Robinson, of The Prin- 
cess Casamassima, for example, is conceived as a free choice 
made in ignorance of the essential knowledge which would have 
prevented it; similarly, Mrs. Wharton's finest short work, Bun- 
ner Sisters, is conceived as a sequence of steps taken by the two 
protagonists into tragic knowledge, each step being made freely 
and apparently wisely on the basis of the imperfect knowledge 
held at the time it is taken. 

Elements of this sort are what we call the given facts of the 
plot: they are the ineliminable facts of character and of initial 
situation. We have a certain group of particularized individuals 
in juxtaposition; the particularity is destiny, the juxtaposition 
chance. But the understanding and the will may rise in some 
measure superior to destiny and to chance, and when they do 
so, we have human victory; or they may make the effort and 
fail, in which case we have tragedy; or the failure having oc- 
curred, there may be a comprehension of the failure and a willed 
adjustment to it, in which case we have the combination of 
tragedy and victory. It is this combination, the representation 
of which Henry James especially strives to achieve, 


Some novelists Defoe, for example, or Hardy make a con- 
scious effort to give the human participant the smallest possible 
freedom of play; James endeavors to give him the greatest pos- 
sible freedom, and he is so successful in the effort that in reading 
one of his better novels one is conscious almost exclusively of 
the problem of ethical choice. 

Now the norm of human experience, in the matter of unham : 
pered choice, is probably somewhere between the extremes of 
Moll Flanders and of Isabel Archer, and the novelist who goes 
to one extreme or the other simply refuses to consider intelli- 
gently certain aspects of human life. There is possibly greater 
educative value there are wider ethical implications in suffer- 
ing the consequences of an ill-judged but unhampered choice 
than in any other department of experience; on the other hand, 
the person whose choice is normally unhampered may often ap- 
pear to have an abominably facile existence in the eyes of him 
whose life is an unbroken and unavailing endurance of neces 
sity, whose primary virtue must of necessity be fortitude. 

James sought in so far as possible, it would seem, to create 
the illusion of unhampered choice, he sought to study the ethi- 
cal judgment of his time and nation in the purest essence to 
which he could distill it. This I believe to have been a limita- 
tion, but of the two alternative limitations, if one is to choose 
one or the other extreme, distinctly the lesser evil. Of the limita- 
tion as such, I shall have nothing further to say; but it was also 
the source of obscurity, and the nature of this obscurity, and the 
nature of James's struggle to master it, will be the subject of this 

James was abetted in his effort to isolate the moral problem 
by the defects of his own knowledge: although he possessed the 
most refined ethical sensibility of his period, and the sensibility 
the most profoundly American, his education and background 
were such that he knew very little of American life and man- 
ners. With the American abroad he was familiar; with the 
travelled American on his return, he was not unfamiliar; and 
one could extend the catalogue to a few other particulars. But 
he knew nothing of American economic life, a fact which he 

recognized and deplored; and he knew next to nothing of the 
daily detail, of the manners, of any single and reasonably repre- 
sentative American class in its native environment, a fact which 
will become abundantly obvious if one compares any of his 
novels whatever to The Age of Innocence, by Mrs. Wharton. 
His own childhood, under the guidance of his elegantly bohe- 
mian father, familiarized him with an intellectual class, but with 
a class consistent only in its intellectuality, and composed of in- 
dividuals largely detached, as he saw them, from their social 
backgrounds his social experience was essentially amorphous. 

In one of his letters, 2 he addresses a correspondent as follows: 
"I sympathize even less with your protest against the idea that 
it takes an old civilization to set a novelist in motion a proposi- 
tion that seems to me so true as to be a truism. It is on manners, 
customs, usages, habits, forms, upon all these things matured 
and established, that a novelist lives they are the very stuff 
his work is made of." James was no doubt right in the general 
proposition, for a novel requires bulk, and the bulk can be com- 
posed only of a scrutiny of the daily detail of life; but the notion 
that America did not offer any body of manners worth examining 
was false, as the work of Mrs. Wharton, again, to go no further, 
amply shows James was simply insufficiently familiar with his 
country or insufficiently observant of it. 

In such a book as The Age of Innocence, Mrs. Wharton shows 
us a group of characters whose actions are governed according 
to the same ethical history and principles which I have men- 
tioned in connection with James. But the characters are living 
in a society cognate and coterminous with those principles; the 
society with its customs and usages, is the external form of the 
principles. Now the customs and usages may become unduly 
externalized, and when they appear so to become, Mrs. Wharton 
satirizes them; but in the main they represent the concrete as- 
pect of the abstract principles of behavior. Thus when Newland 
Archer and the Countess Olenska are on the point of eloping, 
one of the strongest incentives to their withdrawal is the fact 
that they will be forced into a mode of life of a bohemian and 
a Letters, edited by Percy Lubbock, Vol. I, page 72. 


disorderly sort which must inevitably degrade their love in their 
own eyes; and this incentive is essentially serious, for the usages 
which they are unwilling to abandon are the embodiment of 
serious principles; whereas the usages which they are unwilling 
to adopt represent a weak falling away from those principles. 
In this way Mrs. Wharton gives greater precision to her moral 
issues than James is able to achieve, for James endeavors, as I 
have said, to isolate from the manners which might have given 
it concreteness a moral sense which is already isolated by history 
from the ideas which gave rise to it. Ellen Glasgow, in such 
novels as They Stooged to Folly and Virginia, carries the pro- 
cedure of Mrs. Wharton a step farther, and by the measure of 
that step loses in seriousness: she shows her characters so domi- 
nated by a system of manners, or so emotionally, so automati- 
cally, in rebellion against a system of manners, as to be essen- 
tially unconscious of their motives and so determined. She does 
not give an untrue picture of life, for there are more people in 
the world resembling Virginia and her husband than resembling 
Newland Archer; but she gives a less complete picture of human 
nature, for Newland Archer is a man of intelligence as well as 
of sensibility. 

In comparison with a Jamesian character, however, Archer 
and Ellen Olenska are governed by circumstance; the Jamesian 
character has greater freedom, in part because James couldn't 
help it, and in part because he would no doubt have wished it 
anyway. The moral issue, then, since it is primarily an American 
affair, is freed in most of the Jamesian novels, and in all of the 
greatest, from the compulsion of a code of manners. 

The moral issue is also freed from economic necessity. Money 
is never an impelling motive in a Jamesian novel ; that is, no one 
is forced to choose, as Moll Flanders was forced to choose, be- 
tween crime and starvation. On the other hand, a lack of suffi- 
cient funds to live in luxury is a frequent motive to baseness 
among the corrupt characters; Lambert Strether, in The Am- 
bassadors, surmounts this temptation among others. The lack of 
money may be sufficiently great to be a temptation; but it is never 
sufficiently great to be compelling. Isabel Archer is benevolently 

provided with funds after her story opens, with the express pur- 
pose that her action shall thereafter be unhampered. 

This necessity, in the Jamesian art, of seeing to it that the 
leading characters shall be well-heeled, leads to some curious 
paradoxes. Christopher Newman, of The American,, for exam- 
ple, is a perfect embodiment of the Jamesian conscience, yet he 
is a man of fabulous wealth, which he has acquired himself and 
in a very few years, immediately following the Civil War, and 
very largely in western railroads, and he is, in addition, a citizen 
of San Francisco he is, in brief, a colleague of Leland Stanford 
and of Collis P. Huntington. James conceives nearly all of his 
American financiers in the same terms, until he comes to write 
The Ivory Tower, a book in which an intense suspicion, never 
supported by exact knowledge, of the evil of American financial 
life, of its actually corrupting effect on the characters of the par- 
ticipants, is the explicit theme. 

If we demand of a novelist that he portray a society accurately 
as regards all its externals, this contradiction in Jamesian charac- 
ter would be all but fatal to his art. We could justify it to a cer- 
tain extent by saying that there were in the eastern United States 
individuals of moderate wealth either inherited or otherwise hon- 
estly acquired; that James erred only in the unnecessary exag- 
geration of the wealth of his characters, in attributing to a man 
of the character, let us say, of an Adams or a Phillips, the wealth 
of a Sage or a Vanderbilt, in a period in which it is notorious 
that such wealth could not be decently accumulated. We might 
justify him to a certain extent by pleading the indisputable fact 
that many men who are notoriously unscrupulous in matters of 
finance or of politics preserve the domestic virtues intact; though 
such an apology in the background of The Golden Eowl would 
necessarily mitigate our sense of the tragedy of Adam Verver. 

Such apologies would up to a certain point be sound, although 
they would certainly be insufficient. The real objection to them, 
however, is that they would be irrelevant; they would be offered 
in defense of a misconception of the Jamesian art. For James is 
definitely not examining the whole of a society; he is examin- 
ing the mathematical center of a society the ethical conscious- 


ness of a society and he is examining nothing more. For the 
rest, so far as his Americans are concerned, he is employing a 
fictive convention, the convention of fabulous wealth fabulously 
acquired and resulting in the freedom of the possessor from 
necessity, in order to isolate the ethical consciousness in question 
more perfectly than it is to be found isolated in life. In this re- 
spect, his art approaches that of the allegorist, of the symbolic 
poet: it is an art not of inclusion, but of representative and es- 
sential selection. 

We find, then, that James succeeded to a remarkable degree 
in separating the problem of ethical choice from the influence of 
ethical habit and of social pressure as they appear in the guise 
of manners or of economic necessity. The consequences of this 
success remain to be seen. 


James, then, was unequipped to deal adequately with any major 
aspect of Arfierican manners, yet he was a novelist of manners 
by natural gift and by his own admission; he was furthermore 
profoundly American in character. The problem was solved 
naturally by the facts of his personal history: he dealt with the 
American, uprooted from his native usages, and confronted with 
the alien usages of a subtle and ancient society. 

In the early works and in some of the minor works of later 
years, the confrontation leads to curious results. Christopher 
Newman may serve again as the illustration: there is not only 
the paradox of his possessing a virgin New England conscience 
along with a fortune acquired in western railroads, but there is 
the additional paradox of his possessing the gentle flexibility of 
a New England or New York aristocrat at his best, along with a 
social naivet that irritates the Bellegardes. James in his effort to 
indicate a part of the basis for this irritation writes certain scenes 
in which Newman converses with a rural and moralizing gar- 
rulity that puts one strongly in mind of Natty Bumppo. 

In the more mature works, the relationship is, of course, stated 
far more subtly. The Ververs are gentle and cultivated people, 

who are circumvented by persons a shade less gentle and a shade 
more cultivated, the fine degrees of difference, however, being 
firmly indicative of an essential cleavage in character. Lambert 
Strether is from the outset of The Ambassadors a person of great 
astuteness of perception as well as of unusual character; Chad 
Newsome, the character in this particular novel most profoundly 
affected by the contact with Europe, starts out as a crude and 
unformed boy, his crudity being largely accounted for by his age. 
The difference is most obvious, perhaps, in the case of Isabel 
Archer: she is, from the beginning, the social equal of any per- 
son whom she encounters; but she is inexperienced, and her 
exposure to Europe is an exposure to an unexpectedly rich and 
extraordinary experience, which confuses her. 

Nevertheless, from the beginning to the end of James, certain 
major relationships are apparent. 

There is the American who is subjected to the European in- 
fluence and enriched by it; as examples, we may cite Ralph 
Touchett of the Portrait, and Strether and Maria Gostrey of The 
Ambassadors. There is the American who in the process of be- 
coming so enriched, suffers a dissolution of his moral nature, 
and who becomes merely a more or less conscious scoundrel: as 
extreme examples of this type, we may cite Osmund and Mme. 
Merle of the Portrait; as an example of a less conscious type of 
corruption, we may cite Christina Light, especially as she ap- 
pears in Roderick Hudson, less obviously as she appears in The 
Princess Casamassima; Strether appears of this type to the New- 
somes in Massachusetts; Chad Newsome appears of this type at 
the outset of The Ambassadors, later appears of the admirable 
type of Touchett, and at the end remains ambiguous and unre- 
solved, a question for the future, in the eyes of the reader and 
of Strether alike. There is the American who, in the process of 
acquiring this valuable experience, is betrayed by another charac- 
ter, whether American or native European, who has too much 
of it, or conversely and proportionately too little moral sense: 
such characters are Maggie Verver and her father in The Golden 
Bowl, Milly Theale in The Wings of the Dove, Isabel Archer 
in the Portrait, and (if we suspect a trifle the worst of Chad 

Newsome) Lambert Strether in The Ambassadors. This formula 
of betrayal is the tragic formula in the Jamesian novel : in a sub- 
plot of The Ambassadors, there is (but only, again, if we suspect 
the worst of Chad Newsome) a curious variation of it, in 
which Chad, who has been enriched and so (perhaps) corrupted 
through his experience with Mme. de Vionnet, appears (per- 
haps) likely at the end of the book to betray Mme. de Vionnet, 
who, though she is a European and though she has displayed 
certain comprehensible human weaknesses, is a sympathetic 
character. There are the Americans who are essentially too pro- 
vincial, and who are frequently too coarse, to be subject either 
to the benefits or to the dangers of the European experience: 
these individuals are sometimes merely dull vulgarians, like Jim 
Pocock of The Ambassadors; they are sometimes comic but sym- 
pathetic figures like Waymarsh of The Ambassadors, or like 
Henrietta Stackpole of the Portrait; they are sometimes admira- 
ble in a very limited sense, but invidious in the long run to the 
decencies, through their very limitations and a kind of neurotic 
intensity, like Mrs. Newsome and her daughter, of The Am- 
bassadors; more rarely, like Caspar Goodwood, of the Portrait, 
they have a kind of tragic simplicity of directness in a world 
essentially fluid, evasive, and incomprehensible, at least as re- 
gards human motive. Goodwood is tragic because, though im- 
perceptive, he has high character and high intelligence, and 
because he unfailingly and in spite of constant disappointment 
expects human beings to act intelligently; Henrietta Stackpole 
has the same expectation, but lacking so fine an intelligence or 
so high a character (though of course she is a very good soul in 
her fashion) she is necessarily comic. The character immune to 
European influence is never central to the Jamesian plot, and 
seldom alters or develops to any serious degree in the course of 
the book, though things may happen to him. 

In the British novels of the middle period, the same precarious 
balance between character and sensibility is studied, and from 
the same hypersensitive American point of view, in spite of there 
being no American characters. In The Tragic Muse, the solid 
qualities and limitations of the British upper class replace the 


narrower and more intense moral qualities of the American heri- 
tage; Dormer and Sherringham attempt to build a richer life on 
this foundation, Sherringham to fail, Dormer presumably to suc- 
ceedthe book, though it offers a handful of unforgettable char- 
acters, collapses structurally as a result of its double plot, so that 
one's recollection of the manners, or the medium in which the 
characters move, is likely to be more clear than the morality, or 
the form of their motion. In The Awkward Age, to select an- 
other example, Nanda, Mitchy, and Mr. Longdon, the only char- 
acters possessing sufficient moral quality to rely in some measure 
upon it, are all more or less the victims of persons unable to 
distinguish between morals and manners, of persons so external- 
ized as to be essentially corrupt. In the British novels in general, 
I should say, and especially in The Spoils of Poynton, this an- 
tithesis of morals and manners appears less clearly than in The 
American; in fact, in The Spoils of Poynton, the morality is 
largely an isolated question, and stands only in the vaguest sense 
in the usual relationship to manners. 

Toward the end of his life, in The Ivory Tower, James re- 
versed the formula. He appeared to be troubled by the corrupt- 
ing influence of American financial life on those who were not 
subjected to a civilizing influence. In this book, he employs as 
hero a Europeanized American, Graham Fielder, a man of the 
same admirable type as Ralph Touchett, but of much less force 
of character. Fielder had been raised in Europe, apart from the 
financial life in America; he was thus the heir in some measure 
and perhaps in a diluted form of the earlier American moral 
sense as well as of European cultivation. James brings him into 
contact with the corrupt financial life of America early in the 
twentieth century, shows him defeated in the realm of action by 
an exemplar of this life, but rising superior to his adversary 
morally. This form of corruption had, of course, been thriving 
throughout James's career, and James had shown little suspicion 
of its existence; even in The Ivory Tower he does not know ex- 
actly what form the corruption takes, but merely feels its pres- 
ence, as a kind of social atmosphere. However, the same corrup- 
tion in the background of The Ambassadorsthe same stupid 


corruption which was sufficient to drive Henry Adams out of 
political life lends a certain seriousness to the choice which 
confronts Chad Newsome, the choice between the life of a busi- 
nessman in America and (since he lacks both the genius and 
the character of a Henry Adams) the life of a cultivated idler 
in Europe. 

In general, however, the subject of the characteristic Jamesian 
novel is the influence of the cultivation of sensibility (in other 
words, the experience of contact with European manners) upon 
moral character in a pure or isolated form (that is, upon the 
American moral sense, divorced from any body of American 
manners). The implications of this relationship of morality to 
sensibility are of the most profound and the most general sort, 
in spite of the fact that the concrete terms giving rise to the im- 
plications are relatively limited. It is obvious, then, that James is 
much more than a mere portrayer of the American abroad; his 
work partakes in a considerable measure of the allegorical char- 
acter of the work of Hawthorne. The principal dangers inherent 
in the subject and in the method we shall now examine. 


Edmund Wilson in an essay in The Hound and Horn 3 has de- 
fended the theory that The Turn of the Screw should be re- 
garded not as a ghost story but as a study of hallucination. The 
story is told by the governess, who is to be regarded either as 
the victim of the hallucinations or as the observer of the ghosts 
and their machinations. If we assume that the children did not 
see the ghosts and we have only the word of the governess that 
they did see them their every action becomes innocent and 
commonplace except, toward the end, as they are terrified by the 
unbalanced behavior of the governess. There are a few small 

8 The Ambiguity of Henry James, by Edmund Wilson; The Hound and 
Horn, VII-3, April- June, 1934. A greatly extended version of this essay, which 
I had not read till the present volume was ready for the printer, appears in The 
Triple Thinkers, by Edmund Wilson, Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1938. My essay 
and the enlarged essay of Mr. Wilson deal with many of the same problems, 
but from very different points of view. 


difficulties of interpretation either way, but Mr. Wilson's hy- 
pothesis strikes the present writer as more plausible than the 
popular one. As Mr. Wilson points out, the story is not published 
among the ghost stories in the collected edition; there is another 
story, The Marriages, which resembles it in method if we as- 
sume the truth of his theory; resembles it in the fact that this 
story is likewise told from the point of view of an unbalanced 
girl, except that in this case the clue to the interpretation is given 
explicitly at the end. 

For the purposes of this essay, Mr. Wilson's interpretation 
need not be granted, though I personally agree with it. But the 
story if so interpreted even if so interpreted only for a moment 
has great illustrative value. For in the story so interpreted, the 
governess constructs out of a series of innocent and unrelated 
acts, a consistent and coherent theory of corrupt action and a 
very intense emotional reaction to the theory. The gap between 
rational motive and resulting state of mind is so wide as to in- 
clude every item in the story: for this reason, the governess must 
be insane. There is more than one other Jamesian effort, how- 
ever, in which the margin of unmotivated, or obscure, feeling 
is nearly as wide, and apparently without James's realizing it; 
there is almost invariably at least a narrow margin of obscurity; 
and the entire drama of the typical Jamesian novel is the effort 
of some character or group of characters to reduce this margin, 
to understand what is going on. 

Joseph Warren Beach 4 describes The Sacred Fount in the fol- 
lowing passage: "It consists of a series of discussions at a week- 
end party concerning the sentimental relationships of certain 
men and women present. Not a single incident is brought into 
the narrative more important than the intimate look of two per- 
sons observed together in an arbor, a gentleman's appearance of 
age, or the waxing and waning of a lady's wit. The discussions 
are held largely between 'me' and 'Mrs. Briss'; and the climax of 
the story is found simply in the most extended of our debates, 
late at night in the hospitable drawing-room. Each one of us has 

* The Method of Henry James, by Joseph Warren Beach; Yale University 
Press, 1918, pages 43-4. 

developed an elaborate hypothesis to account for certain social 
phenomena, phenomena whose actuality may itself be brought 
in question, being so much an affair of the interpretation (if not 
the imaginative invention) of appearance. T hold that the pres- 
ent wit and competence of Percy Long heretofore a dull and 
unskillful member of society have had to be paid for by the 
woman who loves him; and that this accounts for the nervous 
manner and peculiar tactics of Mae Server, who has lost her for- 
mer cleverness and is trying to conceal the fact. On the same 
grounds I explain to myself the blooming of Mrs. Brissenden 
my opponent in this debate at the expense of 'poor Briss/ who 
daily presents an older face to the world. Toor Briss/ like Mae 
Server, has had to tap the 'sacred fount' the limited source of 
vital energy, in order to give abundant life to the one he loves. 
Following this clue, it appears to me that Percy Long and 'Mrs. 
Briss/ conscious of the similarity of their position, have formed 
a tacit league for concealment and the defense of their common 
interest. And again 'poor Briss' and Mae Server seem to have 
been drawn together by a sense of their community and a com- 
mon need for sympathy. It was Mrs. Briss in the first place who 
helped me to my theory. But it is obvious that, when she comes 
to realize how far I may carry its application, she must deny 
these facts and make her own independent interpretation of the 
facts she acknowledges. And Mrs. Briss is a most ingenious and 
plausible debater. So that T am obliged to hurry away from her 
neighborhood in order to maintain my own view of the facts. 
And so, in the end, the reader is left provided with two complete 
sets of interpretations of a group of more or less hypothetical 
relations. . . ." 

This is, I believe, a fair summary; it comes from one of the 
most enthusiastic admirers of James, and, so far as my knowledge 
of Jamesian criticism extends, from his ablest critic, albeit from a 
critic with whom I frequently disagree. Yet we have here a sum- 
mary of a state of mind that verges on madness, and the novel 
was not ultimately included by the author in the definitive edi- 
tion of his works. 

Similarly, one may fairly ask whether Fleba Vetch, of The 


Spoils of Poynton, does not do something similar to what the 
governess does in The Turn of the Screw, though in the case of 
Fleda, of course, it would be moral hysteria, if such a phrase 
may be used, rather than madness. Fleda has it in her power 
to break the engagement to marry another woman of the man 
whom she loves and who loves her; the rival does not appear 
to be so much in love with him as with his perquisites in 
fact, it is the rival herself who threatens to break if certain 
demands are not granted within a limited time, and her atti- 
tude appears to be one primarily of bad-tempered selfishness. 
Fleda, notwithstanding, constructs a moral obligation out of this 
situation, constructs it so deviously and subtly that it would be 
utterly lost in summary and is sufficiently elusive in the text, 
enforces the compliance, and assures the marriage, thereby, pre- 
sumably, ruining her own life, her lover's, and that of her lover's 
mother. The attitude of the lover, Owen Gereth, never becomes 
clear: Mrs. Gereth appears to assume that it is, like Fleda's, one 
of unwholesome moral refinement; when Owen discusses the 
situation with Fleda, nevertheless, he appears primarily hurt and 
bewildered, so that the reader is free to wonder whether he 
simply performed a quixotic act to win Fleda's esteem in default 
of her hand; Fleda, however, in a passage which is analytical 
rather than emotional, deduces that he was repelled by his some- 
what spoiled fiancee, when, as the result of a check, her action 
became vulgar and unpleasant, and so imagined himself in love 
with Fleda, but that when the check was removed and her charm 
automatically returned, he was again moved to admire her and 
forget Fleda an hypothesis which would render Fleda's tragedy 
a waste of passion in a vulgar cause, though of this Fleda, as well 
as James, appears to be unaware. In any event, Owen remains 
at the end of the story an unresolved figure, a group of at least 
three mutually repellent hypotheses; the value of Fleda's action 
is unjudged Fleda herself was ready to surrender and in fact 
tried to surrender when it was already too late and Owen was 
married, but then apparently returned later to her original view 
of the situation so that Fleda represents a pair of alternative 
hypotheses. The result of this uncertainty is that we do not have 


a tragic moral victory, in which the protagonist judges, makes a 
sacrifice, and saves her soul; nor do we have a tragic defeat, in 
which she makes an unjustified choice and is judged by the 
author that is, suffers the consequences. We have rather an 
intense situation, developed with the utmost care, so far as the 
succeeding facts and states of mind are concerned, but remain- 
ing at nearly all times and certainly at the end uncertain as to 
significance. Fleda's attitude is never resolved; nor is ours; but 
the experience has been intense, and as we have not understood 
it, we cannot but feel it to be essentially neurotic and somewhat 
beyond the margin of the intelligible. 

The Awkward Age is another novel which very clearly illus- 
trates the difficulty. This novel is usually one of the first at- 
tacked by those who dislike the author, and it is in subject and 
in treatment alike unquestionably one of the most tenuous. I 
personally find it, as I find The Spoils of Poynton, and for 
reasons to which later I shall allude briefly, both moving and 
amusing in spite of the defects which I am considering, but that 
fact for the moment is beside the point. 

The book centers on Mrs. Brookenham, the guiding spirit 
of a clever social group, and her daughter, Nanda, who as 
the book opens, arrives at that age of formal and recognized 
maturity at which she is permitted to "come down stairs," or 
be one of her mother's guests. The circle in question is witty, 
moderately intellectual, and accustomed to perfect freedom of 
discussion. The question then arises whether conversation shall 
be sacrificed to the young girl, or the young girl to conversation. 
The latter, in a sense, occurs: that is, Nanda takes part in con- 
versations, from which, according to dying but not yet dead tra- 
ditions, a young girl should be guarded. Nanda is in love with 
Vanderbank, a contemporary and apparently an old admirer of 
her mother. Vanderbank is attracted to Nanda, but gradually 
comes to feel that she is in some way spoiled by this exposure, 
and turns away from her. Mr. Longdon, who had been in love 
with Nanda's grandmother, to whom Nanda bears an exact phys- 
ical resemblance, is necessarily attracted to Nanda, and tells 
Vanderbank that he will provide Nanda with a considerable 


dowry, in the hope of moving Vanderbank to marry her. This, 
however, fails. Mitchett, a wealthy young man of no family and 
of no looks, but of a character both fine and charming, loves 
Nanda, but unsuccessfully; at her request, and as a kind of 
pledge of his love for her, he marries her friend, Aggie, a young 
girl who had been conventionally reared, and who after her mar- 
riage becomes a lewd and vulgar little trollop; after the mar- 
riage, one suspects also that Nanda suspects that perhaps she 
had loved Mitchett without knowing it. Finally she goes off with 
Mr. Longdon, either to be adopted by him, or to marry him, 
presumably the latter. The situation is that of Daisy Miller in- 
finitely rarefied: a young girl of moral integrity and of more or 
less "natural" manner, though she is not in this case an Amer- 
ican, violates a code of manners and is penalized very severely. 

The situation turns purely on a point, and a very subtle one, 
of manners; Nanda is delicate and sophisticated and a person of 
the finest social perception, so that her sins are of the most nearly 
imperceptible kind. It is a tragedy of manners, in which no genu- 
ine moral issue is involved, but in which vague depths of moral 
ugliness, especially in Vanderbank, are elusively but unforget- 
tably suggested. Vanderbank is a creature through whose tran- 
quil and pellucid character there arises at the slightest disturb- 
ance of his surface a fine cloud of silt, of ugly feeling far too 
subtle to be called suspicion, but darkening his entire nature and 
determining his action. The tragedy far outweighs the motive, 
and the relations between character and character are frequently 
so subtle as to be indefinable. The endeavor to make the motive 
serve in such a case no doubt accounts in part for the excessive 
subtlety with which the characters scrutinize each other and the 
whole situation; they continually try to find more in it all than 
is really there, in the effort to understand their own feelings, or 
rather to justify them. They remind one and James, since his 
plight for the moment is their own, likewise reminds one of 
Hawthorne scrutinizing Dr. Grimshaw's spiders with insanse in- 
tensity, but with no illumination. 

Mrs. Brookenham says: " The thing is, don't you think?' she 
appealed to Mitchy Tor us not to be so awfully clever as to make 


it believed that we can never be simple. We mustn't sec too tre- 
mendous things even in each other/ She quite lost patience 
with the danger she glanced at. We can be simple!' 

We can, by God!' Mitchy laughed. 

Well, we are now and it's a great comfort to have it settled/ 
said Vanderbank. 

Then you see/ Mrs. Brook returned, 'what a mistake you'd 
make to see abysses of subtlety in my having been merely nat- 
ural/ " 

And on another occasion Vanderbank says to Nanda: "You're 
too much one of us all. We've tremendous perceptions/' 

It is a remarkable evidence of the genius of James that though 
most of the important actions in the story are either flatly in- 
credible or else are rendered so subtly as to be indeterminable, 
yet the resultant attitudes and states of mind of the actors are 
rendered with extraordinary poignancy: the obscure, slow, and 
ugly withdrawal of Vanderbank, the final scene between Mitchy 
and Nanda, the final departure of Nanda and Mr. Longdon 
(even though* one is none too certain of the exact nature of the 
relationship to which they are departing) are, for myself, among 
the most haunting memories which I retain from my fragmen- 
tary experience as a reader of novels. Yet few memorable novels 
are less satisfactory. 

In order to indicate sharply the nature of the Jamesian ob- 
scurity, I am purposely citing the most extreme examples of it, 
before examining the manner in which it invades the more im- 
portant works. I wish to conclude this phase of the discussion, 
with an account of the most extraordinary plunge into pure in- 
coherence which James ever made, the posthumous and unfin- 
ished book entitled The Sense of the Past. Though the work is 
unfinished, we possess the author's notes for the unfinished por- 
tion, so that we have a very good idea of what would have hap- 

The story deals with Ralph Pendrel, a young man of about 
thirty years and some wealth, who has been prevented from visit- 
ing Europe because of various personal obligations. Death, hav- 
ing eliminated the last of these obligations, he goes. He is a kind 

of amateur historical scholar, and he has published a monograph 
on a theory of the historical approach. A distant relative in Eng- 
land has read this monograph and admired it, and, dying just 
before the visit to Europe, has bequeathed the young man a 
house in London, which had been built early in the eighteenth 
century. Pendrel visits the house immediately upon arriving, and 
spends an afternoon and evening in the examination of it; an 
examination in which he observes among other items the portrait 
of a young man of the early nineteenth century, that is, of about 
a hundred years before the initial action, which arouses his curi- 
osity: the portrait is a three-quarters rear view of the head, so that 
the features are not shown. Late in the evening the young man of 
the portrait steps down, and the two meet and strike a bargain: the 
young man of the portrait had always had great curiosity about 
the future, just as Pendrel has had about the past, and they ex- 
change periods, the agreement being that either will come to the 
aid of the other if the going becomes difficult. 

The next morning Pendrel pays a visit to the American am- 
bassador, tells him what has happened, takes him to the house, 
bids him goodbye, and steps into the doorway, thereupon enter- 
ing the past. He finds a young woman within, Miss Molly Mid- 
more, a distant relative, whom, it appears, he has just come from 
America to marry. The remainder of the book as far as written 
and apparently as far as planned deals with a conversation be- 
tween these two and others, the conversation running through 
the remainder of the day and evening. The other persons are 
Molly's sister, Nan, who appears on the scene late, and with 
whom Pendrel gradually falls in love, Molly's mother, Molly's 
brother, and Nan's suitor. 

The plot is something like this: as a result of the protracted 
conversation, Pendrel and his hosts gradually become aware of 
fine differences of social tone; differences which make Pendrel 
feel an alien to the point of arousing his terror, and which on 
the other hand cause the Midmores to feel a suspicion of Pen- 
drel which becomes in the long run almost equally intense. 
These differences are first a greater sophistication on the part of 
the British than on the part of the American, and second a 


greater brutality in regard to the essentially moral or humane 
values on the part of the nineteenth century than on the part of 
the twentieth. It is this latter difference which gradually becomes 
the more obvious and which arouses Pendrel's terror. 

Now the original young man of the nineteenth century had 
really married Molly; but Pendrel gradually comes to find her 
vaguely gross and repulsive, and he falls in love with Nan, who 
is less characteristic of her period, and who falls in love with him. 
Pendrel thus betrays his bargain; the other young man appears 
to him from time to time to threaten him, and finally decides to 
abandon him to the nineteenth century and his own devices, 
from which he is ultimately rescued by the self-sacrifice of Nan. 

In the course of the conversation, Pendrel finds himself from 
the beginning provided with information about his situation, 
and about the entire Midmore family, as the need arises, like a 
man in a dream. At one point he even finds himself provided 
with a miniature painting of Molly: he extracts it from his vest 
pocket, in spite of the fact that a moment before he had had no 
inkling of its 'existence. 

The conversation is devoted in a large measure, so far as 
subject matter is concerned, to establishing through this dream- 
procedure, the antecedent relationships between the Pendrels 
and the Midmores; so far as tone and effect arc concerned, it is 
devoted to establishing the differences already mentioned. It is 
often difficult if not impossible to grasp these differences, they 
are so nearly imperceptible: the result of the difficulty is in a large 
measure the feeling that James is nearly as hallucinated as Pen- 
drel; it is a kind of pushing of James's passion for subtle distinc- 
tions of manner to something resembling madness. James, like 
the characters in The Awkward Age, becomes so watchful for 
symptoms that he appears to become self-hypnotized; in this 
again he resembles the later Hawthorne. 

To illustrate the difficulty, let me quote from the description 
of Mrs. Midmore: "However, she was herself an apparition of 
such force that the question of his own luck missed application 
and he but stared at her lost, and yet again lost, in that reflection 
that yes, absolutely yes, no approach to such a quality of tone as 


she dealt in had ever in his own country greeted his ear. Yes, 
again and yet again, it spoke of ten thousand things that he could 
guess at now in her presence, and that he had even dreamed of, 
beforehand, through faint echoes and in other stray lights; things 
he could see she didn't in the least think of at the moment either, 
all possessed as she was with the allowance she had in her hos- 
pitality already made for him. Every fact of her appearance con- 
tributed somehow to this grand and generous air, the something- 
or-other suggesting to him that he had never yet seen manner at 
home at that pitch, any more than he had veritably heard utter- 
ance. When or where, in any case, had his eye, alert as he might 
feel it naturally was, been caught by such happy pomp as that of 
the disposed dark veil or mantilla which, attached to her head, 
framed in hoodlike looseness this seat of her high character and, 
gathering about her shoulders, crossed itself as a pair of long ends 
that depended in lacelike fashion almost to her feet? He had 
apprehended after a few more seconds that here was 'costume' 
beheld of him in the very fact and giving by its effect all the joy of 
recognition since he had hitherto had but to suppose and to con- 
ceive it, though without being in the effort, as his own person 
might testify, too awkwardly far out. Yes, take him for what she 
would, she might see that he too was dressed which tempered 
his barbarism perhaps only too much and referred itself back 
at all events, he might surely pretend, to a prime and after all not 
uncommendable intuition of the matter. If he had always been, 
as he would have allowed, overdressed for New York, where 
this was a distinct injury to character and credit, business credit 
at least, which he had none the less braced, so he had already 
found he was no more than quite right for London, and for 
Mansfield Square in especial; though at the same time he didn't 
aspire, and wouldn't for the world, to correspond with such hints 
as Mrs. Midmore threw off. She threw it off to a mere glance that 
she represented by the aid of dress the absolute value and use of 
presence as presence, apart from any other office a pretension 
unencountered in that experience of his own which he had yet up 
to now tended to figure as lively. Absolutely again, as he could re- 
cover, he had never understood presence without use to play a 

recognized part; which would but come back indeed to the ques- 
tion of what use great ambiguous question-begging term! 
might on occasion consist of. He was not to go into that for some 
time yet, but even on the spot it none the less shone at him for 
the instant that he was apparently now to see ornament itself 
frankly recognized as use; and not only that, but boldly con- 
tented, unassailably satisfied, with a vagueness so portentous 
which it somehow gave a promise to his very eyes of the moment 
that he should find convincingly asserted and extended. All this 
conspired toward offering him in this wondrous lady a figure that 
made ladies hitherto displayed to him, and among whom had 
been several beauties, though doubtless none so great as splendid 
Molly, lose at a stroke their lustre for memory, positively vitiated 
as they thus seemed by the obscurity, not to say the flat humility, 
of their employed and applied and their proportionately admired 

One should note in connection with a passage like this one, 
that concentration so intense and so exclusive on so trivial an 
aspect of character amounts to madness, and that PendreFs in- 
tense excitement is vastly disproportionate to any actual percep- 
tion that one can disentangle, as it is likewise later in the story 
when his attention begins to focus on what he conceives to be 
the difference between the two periods, so that Pendrel, like 
other characters mentioned, strongly resembles Mr. Wilson's ver- 
sion of the governess in The Turn of the Screw., Further, in the 
story as a whole, one perception is only indicated or suggested 
before it suggests another and is consequently dropped; Pendrel's 
(that is, James's) feelings and interpretations of events are essen- 
tially similar in their emergence and progression to the informa- 
tion on which they are based, which emerges and proceeds as in 
a dream. This passage endeavors to make a marginal aspect of 
experience ("tone") carry vastly more significance than is proper 
to it, and it is, in addition, uncertain and incoherent in its import. 
It is a striking fore-runner of the Experimental poetry of the 
twentieth century, even of the extreme forms of such poetry, and 
indicates more clearly than anything else could do the historical 
continuity between the earlier American culture and the more 


recent literature; for this phenomenon in James is distinctly, and 
nothing more than, an extreme development of a difficulty in- 
herent in all his work and in the society which gave rise to his 
work, a difficulty of which he was in a considerable measure 
aware, but of which he was insufficiently aware to correct it. The 
obscurity of the moral problem, the development of the feeling 
in excess of the motive, is a familiar phenomenon of the romantic 
period, that is, of the period extending roughly from about 1750 
to the present. The conscientious concentration upon this obscu- 
rityconscientious almost to hallucination, and almost to halluci- 
nation because so seldom intellectual in spite of the conscientious- 
nessis the residue of the New England heritage, as I have 
endeavored to show, even when that concentration is imputed to 
an English character, such as Fleda Vetch. 

I should like to consider briefly the margin of similar difficulty 
inhering in some of the more successful novels. 

Roderick Hudson is a portrait of a certain type of romantic 
genius in disintegration. Hudson, the genius, is taken to Rome 
by a wealthy compatriot, Mallett, and there rapidly matures as 
an artist, but in the process of so doing loses control of himself 
morally, sinks into a condition of mental and moral lethargy, and 
eventually dies in a storm in the Alps, perhaps by suicide, prob- 
ably by accident, after a brief but brilliant career in which he has 
managed to outrage most of the human decencies and apparently 
with very small consciousness of what he is doing. James in his 
preface to this work remarks: "My mistake on Roderick's behalf 
and not in the least of conception, but of composition and expres- 
sionis that, at the rate at which he falls to pieces, he seems to 
place himself beyond our understanding and our sympathy. 
These are not our rates, we say; we ourselves certainly, under 
like pressure, for what is it, after all? would make more of a 
fight. We conceive going to pieces nothing is easier, since we 
see people do it, one way or another, all round us; but this young 
man must either have had less of the principle of development to 
have had so much of the principle of collapse, or less of the prin- 
ciple of collapse to have had so much of the principle of develop- 
ment. 'On the basis of so great a weakness/ one hears the reader 


say, 'where was the idea of your interest? On the basis of so great 
an interest, where is the provision for so much weakness?' One 
feels indeed, in the light of this challenge, on how much too 
scantily projected and suggested a field poor Roderick and his 
large capacity for ruin are made to turn round. It has all begun too 
soon, as I say, and too simply, and the determinant function at- 
tributed to Christina Light, the character of well-nigh sole agent 
of his catastrophe that this young woman has forced upon her, 
fails to commend itself to our sense of truth and proportion/' 

We have here the objection of the experienced novelist in his 
old age to a work of his youth; and he seems to miss the point 
as a result of concentrating so acutely upon the problems of the 
construction of novels in general as to forget the subject of the 
novel in hand. The subject in hand is a particular type of irra- 
tional genius fairly common since the third quarter of the eight- 
eenth century; and anyone who has ever played in a modest way 
the role of a Mallett or even of a more remote observer of a crea- 
ture like Hudson, or anyone who has ever seriously considered 
the life and letters, let us say, of Shelley, can scarcely fail to be 
struck by the verisimilitude. From the point of view of the 
Jamesian novelist, the work is not properly a novel, and for the 
reasons which James assigns it contains too little of the element 
of struggle to be dramatic but as a full-length and objective por- 
trait of an uncommon but still recognizable type, the book is in 
its fashion superb. 

It is the subject, then, and not the method, which justifies the 
younger James against the older; but if the same objections can 
be raised against the treatment of individuals presumably more 
normal, the situation becomes more serious. 

In The American, an early novel to which I have repeatedly 
referred in the earlier sections of this essay, Christopher New- 
man, the American who gives the book its title, becomes engaged 
to marry Mme. de Cintre, a beautiful and aristocratic young 
French widow, of the family Bellegarde; then her mother and 
her older brother break off the engagement, on the grounds that, 
on second thought, an alliance with so rank a barbarian is a more 
painful experience than they can endure. Newman has disliked 


these two from the outset, and has suspected them of an evil 
past; the suspicion hovers over the entire book. Mme. de Cintr6, 
in taking leave of Newman, in her mother's presence, says she 
is doing it because she is afraid of her mother. The younger 
brother, who has become Newman's friend, and who feels the 
family to have been disgraced by this perfidy on the part of his 
brother and mother, tells Newman on his deathbed that he is 
sure that his mother and brother between them killed his father 
and that a certain family servant knows the details. From this 
servant, Newman obtains a note written by the elder marquis 
just before his death and given her as he was dying, which says 
that his wife has killed him, but with no explanation. The serv- 
ant hazards the guess that when the marquise was with the mar- 
quis alone, she may have poured his medicine on the ground 
when he called for it, in an attack of pain, and at the same time 
have given him a look so full of hatred that he wished to die. At 
any rate, after a long illness, and shortly after he had begun to 
recover, he lapsed into a coma after his wife had spent some 
hours alone with him, and recovered only long enough to write 
this note and give it to the servant. 

The details of the evil in the Bellegardes are very uncertain; 
yet the effect in the form of their social presence, their emotional 
effect upon Newman, is very definite. Also, the fear felt by the 
heroine of her mother, the nature of the power wielded by the 
mother over her, is largely obscure, though it may in part be 
explained by social usage and by consequently ingrained habit, 
beginning in childhood. 

James is fairly severe on this work in his preface. He writes: 
"The only general attribute of projected romance that I can see, 
the only one that fits all its cases, is the fact of the kind of experi- 
ence with which it dealsexperience liberated, so to speak; ex- 
perience disengaged, disembroiled, disencumbered, exempt from 
the conditions that we usually know to attach to it and, if we 
wish so to put the matter, drag upon it, and operating in a me- 
dium which relieves it, in a particular interest, of the incon- 
venience of a related, a measurable state, a state subject to all our 
vulgar communities. The greatest intensity may so be arrived at 


evidently when the sacrifice of community, of the 'related' sides 
of situations, has not been too rash. It must to this end not 
flagrantly betray itself; we must even be kept if possible, for our 
illusion, from suspecting any sacrifice at all. The balloon of ex- 
perience is in fact of course tied to the earth, and under that 
necessity we swing, thanks to a rope of remarkable length, in the 
more or less commodious car of the imagination; but it is by the 
rope we know where we are, and from the moment that cable is 
cut we are at large and unrelated: we only swing apart from the 
globe though remaining as exhilarated, naturally, as we like, 
especially when all goes well. The art of the romancer is, 'for the 
fun of it/ insidiously to cut the cable, to cut it without our detect- 
ing him. What I have recognized then in 'The American/ much 
to my surprise and after long years, is that the experience here 
represented is the disconnected and uncontrolled experience- 
uncontrolled by our general sense of 'the way things happen' 
which romance alone more or less successfully palms off on us." 

James in discussing the defects of this plot in the preface states 
that the Bellegardes, had they been real French people of their 
class and type, would not have treated Newman as in the novel; 
that they would have got hold of him and kept him as quietly as 
possible and have fed their self-esteem and sense of security on 
the profit. This, of course, is conjecture, and in actual life it is 
at least conceivable that they might have acted either way. But 
he gets closer to the heart of the difficulty in discussing Mme. de 
Cintre, her fear of her mother, and the obscure influence wielded 
over her by her mother. He says: "It is as difficult, I said above, 
to trace the dividing line between the real and the romantic as 
to plant a mile-stone between north and south; but I am not sure 
an infallible sign of the latter is not this rank vegetation of the 
'power* of bad people that good get into, or vice-versa. It is so 
rarely, alas, into our power that anyone gets!" 

Now it so happens that this formula is applicable, not only to 
The American, but to a good deal of James: this particular rank 
vegetation is the specific form that the Jamesian moral obscurity 
frequently takes. Christina Light exercises some such power over 
Roderick Hudson, but, as I have already pointed out, the power, 


like the other aspects of Hudson's behavior, becomes compre- 
hensible on the understanding that Hudson is essentially an in- 
comprehensible type; in The Turn of the Screw, the ghosts ex- 
ercise such a power over the children, but they again are immune 
to ordinary standards of criticism, for either they are ghosts, and 
so supernatural, or else they are the products of an insane mind 
and so legitimately romantic. The power of Muniment and of 
the Princess Casamassima (formerly Christina Light) over Hya- 
cinth Robinson verges on this phenomenon, but perhaps less 
clearly. The power of Osmund over his wife and his daughter 
in The Portrait of a Lady, is a particularly clear example; and 
to this I shall return in a moment. 

James writes further in the preface to The American: "Noth- 
ing here is in truth 'offered' everything is evaded, and the effect 
of this, I recognize, is of the oddest. His relation to Mme. de 
Cintre takes a great stride, but the author appears to view that 
but as a signal for letting it severely alone." And again, of Mme. 
de Cintre: "With this lady, altogether, I recognize, a light plank, 
too light a plank, is laid for the reader over a dark 'psychologi- 
cal' abyss. The delicate clue to her conduct is never definitely 
placed in his hand: I must have liked to think verily it was deli- 
cate and to flatter myself that it was to be felt with the finger-tips 
rather than heavily tugged at." Much of the obscurity of this plot, 
then, became evident to James, and the obscurity as described in 
his own terms is of much the same sort as that which he found 
in Roderick Hudson; but we cannot find in the subject of The 
American the justification for the obscurity which we can find 
in the subject of the other book. There is a marked tendency in 
this book on the part of James and of his characters alike to read 
into situations more than can be justified by the facts as given, 
to build up intense states of feeling, on the basis of such reading, 
and to judge or act as a result of that feeling. This is what we 
found Fleda Vetch doing in The Spoils of Poynton, and above 
all it is what we found the governess doing in The Turn of the 
Screw, so intensely, in fact, that the story may well be taken to 
serve, if we accept the psychopathic interpretation, as a very 
acute and devastating self-parody. 

33 i 

In The Portrait of a Lady the chief difficulty resides in the 
feelings inspired by Osmund in the latter part of the book, and 
in Isabel's final decision; the margin of obscurity here is slight, 
and to the average American admirer of James will no doubt 
appear negligible, but the margin is genuine notwithstanding 
and is worth examining if we wish to get a broad view of the 
man. Osmund is a kind of neurotic aesthete, self-centered, un- 
scrupulous within the limits of safety, and thoroughly unpleas- 
ant, but the species of terror which Isabel comes to feel in regard 
to him is absolutely unexplained by any of his actions or by any 
characteristic described. He betrayed Isabel in regard to his mar- 
riage with her, but this betrayal is scarcely a motive for the par- 
ticular feeling which Isabel comes to experience. Furthermore, 
the same feeling is experienced by the daughter, Pansy, who was 
presumably unaware of the deception: Pansy is confined in a 
convent to break off her attachment to her young and unsuitable 
admirer; the convent is the one in which she went to school 
throughout childhood and is wholly familiar, and the nuns are 
devoted anJ'kind; but Pansy after a brief period there can en- 
dure no more and surrenders abjectly and in fear. The influence 
of Osmund here is of the same obscure type as the influence of 
the Bellegardes. And at the end, though Isabel returns to her 
husband because of an intense moral sense, generically of the 
same type as that of Fleda Vetch, James seems to fear the in- 
adequacy of this sense as a sole motive, and bolsters it up by 
her desire and promise to stand by Pansy in the trials ahead of 
her. The power and influence thus obscurely wielded by Osmund 
provide the dramatic crisis of the book. 

In The Princess Casamassima a similar power is exerted over 
Hyacinth Robinson by Paul Muniment and by the Princess; in 
fact, the entire effect of Muniment's character is unexplained, 
and that of the Princess is but partly explained. Muniment is a 
member of a secret revolutionary and terroristic group, and his 
entire value in the novel derives from this fact; he is the moral 
agent of a hidden and malign power; the impressiveness of his 
character is the perceptible token of this fact; his influence over 
Hyacinth is the power in action. But on the actual stage of the 


novel he does little or nothing; of the views, purposes, and ac- 
tivities of his group we know next to nothing and we suspect 
that James knew less; we see Muniment enter a dark doorway 
occasionally, accompanied by the Princess, a doorway behind 
which we suspect that a meeting is in progress; we hear the last, 
ominous, but uninformative conversational exchange between the 
two immediately prior to their separating after a discussion of 
some kind; and for the rest we observe Muniment at tea-parties, 
conversing very little but tremendously impressing all present. 
In The Ivory Tower the effect of the American financial career is 
portrayed in much the same manner, but the real action produc- 
ing the effect, the essential evil, is not described, for of that, 
James, as he admitted, knew nothing. The remarkable thing 
about both of these plots is the degree of realism that James man- 
ages to extract from them, when they are, essentially, so inane. 

Joseph Warren Beach remarks of The Princess Casamassima:* 
"As for the revolutionary movement, the very vagueness of its 
presentation was a part of James's scheme. 'My scheme,' he says, 
'called for the suggested nearness (to all our apparently ordered 
life) of some sinister anarchic underworld, heaving in its pain, 
its power and its hate; a presentation not of sharp particulars, but 
of loose appearances, vague motions and sounds and symptoms, 
just perceptible presences and general looming possibilities.' " 
The trouble appears to the present writer to be that as a motivat- 
ing force for a two- volume novel, especially a novel which pur- 
ports to spread so vast a canvas for the representation of various 
levels of society, these "vague motions, sounds, and symptoms" 
have little more force or dignity than a small boy under a sheet 
on Hallowe'en; they repeatedly approach the ludicrous: the adult 
in broad daylight, that is the reader of a Jamesian novel, is un- 
likely to experience terror without admitting good reason. Beach 
a little later remarks of the Princess herself: 8 "But she is also, for 
Hyacinth and for us, the mystery of a character not thoroughly 
understood . . . what we are never sure of is how far she is hu- 
man." Beach prefers her representation in this novel to her rep- 

j. * 

5 J. W. Beach, op. cit., page 213. 
8 Ibid., page 215. 


reservation in Roderick Hudson, and regards this book as one of 
the greater ones. But in Roderick Hudson we are fairly certain as 
to how far she is human and how far not, and the exact degree 
is rendered not only clearly but compactly, and in terms of defi- 
nite action; she appears there in a clear light, a figure of inimi- 
table beauty and perversity. The Princess Casamassima as a novel 
suffers in its actual form from the obscure background of all save 
three of its characters Anastasius Vetch, Miss Pynsent, and in a 
measure Hyacinth and so many and such long scenes are de- 
voted to the representation of obscure characters that the novel 
appears to have little form; we are most of the time in a kind of 
stagnant water. 

If we proceed from these latter works to the latest, and consider 
the book which for James was his most satisfactory, The Am- 
bassadors, we have at least three sources of difficulty, of possible 
dissatisfaction. In the first place, it is only by stretching a point 
that we can bring ourselves to consider Chad Newsome at best a 
bone worth quite so much contention, worth the expenditure ol 
quite so much moral heroism as Strether expends upon him. We 
can understand Chad's hesitation to return to the American busi- 
ness life of his period, but his alternative that of a young man 
about Paris, however cultivated, is scarcely the alternative of a 
Henry Adams. The central issue does not quite support the dra- 
matics, as does, on the other hand, the central issue of each of the 
other late masterpieces, The Golden Bowl and The Wings of the 
Dove. Furthermore, our final attitude toward Chad is unresolved, 
and thus resembles our final attitude toward Owen Gereth in The 
Spoils of Poynton; this may not be untrue to life, but it is untrue 
to art, for a work of art is an evaluation, a judgment, of an experi- 
ence, and only in so far as it is that is it anything; and James in 
this one respect does not even judge the state of uncertainty, but 
as in The Spoils of Poynton, he merely leaves us uncertain. 
Shakespeare left us in no uncertainty about Coriolanus; Melville 
in none about Ahab or Benito Cereno; nor did either author lack 
subtlety. And finally, Strether's ultimate scruple to give up 
Maria Gostrey, so that he may not seem in Woollett to have got 
anything for himself from a situation in which he will seem to his 


friends in Woollett to have betrayed his trust, and in spite of the 
fact that Miss Gostrey could scarcely have been regarded as in 
any sense a bribe this scruple, I say, impresses me very strongly 
as a sacrifice of morality to appearances: there might, conceivably, 
have been more Christian humility in considering the feelings of 
Maria Gostrey and in letting his reputation in Woollett go by the 
board. The moral choice, here, appears to be of the same strained 
and unjustifiable type as that of Fleda Vetch, or as that of Isabel 

Joseph Warren Beach 7 in his chapter on the ethics of James 
asserts that no one save an American, or conceivably an English- 
man, will ever understand James and admire him as he deserves, 
because the Jamesian morality will be incomprehensible; and he 
adds that the morality is essentially the morality of the New Eng- 
land of Emerson and Thoreau. Beach does not enlarge upon these 
ideas; they stand in his text very much as impressions; but they 
would seem to be fairly sound. I have endeavored to define the 
Jamesian morality as closely as possible and to show its background 
in history. It does not seem to me possible that an American, 
even a provincial American like myself, can be wholly sym- 
pathetic with James if he examines him closely and in his histor- 
ical context. Mr. Beach, though he does not examine that context, 
though he appears to be almost as helplessly in it and of it as 
James himself I should add, perhaps, that my admiration for 
Mr. Beach, like my admiration for James, is very great is aware, 
though imperfectly, of the difficulty, or at least perceives a good 
many individual representations of the difficulty. And James is 
almost more perceptive in this respect than is Mr. Beach, in spite 
of his having been the primary sinner. I have already cited a num- 
ber of examples of his self-criticism; I might cite a passage from 
a novel, The Bostonians, which satirizes the very social context 
from which he arose, and which would seem to have been largely 
responsible for his difficulty. James describes Mrs. Tarrant, the 
wife of the faith-healer and charlatan-at-large, in terms that might 
also serve as an exaggerated description of James himself at his 
worst: "When she talked and wished to insist, and she was al- 

Ibid., page 131. 


ways insisting, she puckered and distorted her face, with an effort 
to express the inexpressible, which turned out, after all, to be 
nothing." Of this woman's husband, he wrote: "Tarrant was a 
moralist without a moral sense." But in this Tarrant did not 
resemble James, but was rather the representative of another as- 
pect of New England, the aspect best represented in literature, 
perhaps, by Cooper's Jason Newcome, and best promoted in life 
by Benjamin Franklin, though Franklin personally had little 
enough in common or at the very worst a great deal that was 
not in common with Tarrant and Newcome. James, however, 
had too much moral sense, but was insufficiently a moralist. 


The foregoing pages might lead the careless reader to assume 
that my opinion of James is low; the fact of the matter is, that 
if I were permitted a definition of the novel which should exclude 
among other works Moby Dick, Mardi, The Encantadas, and the 
autobiographical works of Melville and such a definition would 
be neither difficult nor illegitimate I should be inclined to con- 
sider James as the greatest novelist in English, as he is certainly 
one of the five or six greatest writers of any variety to be produced 
in North America, though the estimate would proceed from a 
view of the history and form of the novel that would in all likeli- 
hood be pleasing to few devotees of that art. 

The fact of the matter is, that in reading most of the English 
and American novelists preceding James who are commonly 
conceded to be great, our estimate of the writers' genius is formed 
very largely on the quality of the incidentals of the works under 
consideration, and not on the quality of what in a drama or an 
epic would be the essentials. Jane Austen, who is inescapably one 
of the best, hangs her remarkably brilliant comment and char- 
acterization on frames of action so conventional as to be all but 
trivial; the same is true of Trollope; it is more obviously true of 
Scott. It is less true of such a writer as Dickens, but a plot by 
Dickens, and usually half of the attendant characters, will ordi- 
narily be so corrupted by insufferable sentimentalism, that one 


turns hither and yonder infallibly to reap what profit one may 
from the details. The plotting of Meredith and of George Eliot 
is far more serious, but both writers fall very much below James 
in characterization and in the quality of their prose. The prose of 
James is sometimes obscure, and as a result of the obscurity it 
may sometimes be found diffuse, but it is always sensitive and 
honest; the prose of George Eliot is laborious, and the prose of 
Meredith is worse it is laboriously clever. 

If we come to James as we come to Dickens or to Trollope, 
with the initial assumption that the plot can be taken or left 
according to the mood of the reader, the wealth of incidental 
felicities which we are likely to find will scarcely be equalled by 
any other novelist in English. Many writers have commented 
upon the unforgettable vividness of James's characterization; I 
personally have a far sharper recollection of the characteristics 
and attitudes, even of the external appearance, of many char- 
acters from James, and I have such a recollection of more char- 
acters, than I have from all the rest of English fiction, and cer- 
tainly far more than I have from my own life. Consider, for a 
moment, an incomplete enumeration such as the following: Rod- 
erick Hudson, Rowland Mallett, Christina Light, and Mary Gar- 
land, from Roderick Hudson, not to mention minor characters so 
charming as Sam Singleton; Isabel Archer, Ralph Touchett, 
Mme. Merle, Gilbert Osmund, Caspar Goodwood, Henrietta 
Stackpole, and Lord Warburton, of The Portrait of a Lady, Hya- 
cinth Robinson, Miss Pynsent, and Anastasius Vetch (one of the 
most moving of all the minor figures) of The Princess Casamas- 
sima; from The Tragic Muse, Sherringham, Dormer, Lady Julia, 
Dormer's mother, Mr. Carteret, and Gabriel Nash, a figure more 
perverse and astonishing than any other save Christina Light or 
possibly her poodle; Nanda, Mitchy, and Mr. Longdon of The 
Awkward Age; Strether, Maria Gostrey, the Newsomes and 
Pococks, Waymarsh, Mme. de Vionnet, of The Ambassadors; 
Kate Croy, Merton Densher, and Milly Theale, of The Wings of 
the Dove; Maggie Verver, her father, the Prince, and Charlotte 
Stant, of The Golden Bowl; Fleda Vetch and Mrs. Gereth, of 
The Spoils of Poynton; the legendary but beautiful figures, all 


but static in their remote perfection, of The Europeans; these are 
only a few of the creatures of James whom, if one once has met 
them, one can never forget. They are not great caricatures, like 
Sir Pitt Crawley, whom one remembers carrying Becky Sharp's 
trunk into the house, or like the old laird of Kidnapped, whose 
nightcapped head one remembers projecting from the window, 
but they are created with a restraint such that there is no exagger- 
ation, yet with an awareness so rich that every essential detail is 
realized; after the lapse of years they are remembered not like 
portraits from a book but like persons one has known, yet they 
are remembered more clearly, for the observation of James is finer 
than our own would have been. 

Further, the margin of imperfection in many of the works is 
not of the utmost seriousness aesthetically. Many of the minor 
works The Europeans is nearly the best example are perfect 
within their limits; the margin of difficulty in such major efforts 
as The Portrait of a Lady and The Ambassadors is not great in 
proportion to the wealth offered us; The Wings of the Dove and 
The Golderi'Bowl, though both books display undue clairvoy- 
ance on the part of certain characters, are both in their central 
plotting, it seems to me, perfectly sound. 

Finally, his very virtues, in the semi-successful works, and in 
the successful as well, are closely related to his defects. His de- 
fects arise from the effort on the part of the novelist and of his 
characters to understand ethical problems in a pure state, and to 
understand them absolutely, to examine the marginal, the semi- 
obscure, the fine and definitive boundary of experience; the 
purely moral that is, the moral divorced from all problems of 
manners and of compulsion, as it appears in the case of Fleda 
Vetch can probably be defined but very rarely, and more or less 
as the result of good fortune in regard to the given facts of the 
situation, with the precision which James appears to seek, so that 
the effort in all save a few occasional and perfect situations must 
necessarily lead to more or less supersubtlety, and if the super- 
subtlety is pushed far enough, as it sometimes is, to an obsurant- 
ism amounting in effect to hallucination. On the other hand, 
the effort unquestionably results in a degree of very genuine sub- 


tlety, not only of central moral perception, but of incidental per- 
ception of character, that no other novelist has equalled. An ad- 
ditional reason for the memorableness of the Jamesian characters 
is the seriousness with which they take themselves and each 
other: we feel that we are somehow on essential ground with 
them, even if the essentiality of the ground results in its shifting 
like quicksand; we may disapprove of Fleda Vetch as a person 
for her errors and as a creation for the errors of James; but the in- 
tegrity with which the errors are made, their fidelity to the his- 
torical context of which they are an essential part, and in spite of 
the fact that a great artist properly considered ought to have a 
better understanding than James displayed of the defects and 
dangers of his own historical context, this integrity and this fidel- 
ity in themselves are unforgettable; we do not have great tragedy, 
but we at least share a real experience, and the reality is of a 
quality that we shall find but rarely if at all in other novelists. 
And finally, we have only the loosest conception of the successful 
works and elements of James, if we do not fully understand his 
kind and degree of failure, for the failure represents the particu- 
lar problem with which he was struggling to deal one could al- 
most regard it as his subject-matter. 

As Mr. Beach points out, James's technical development is a de- 
velopment steadily in the direction of identifying the author's 
point of view with that of some particular character, toward the 
elimination of the function of the omniscient author. One might 
imagine that the obscurity in many of the novels resulted from 
the elimination of the author as commentator, from his resigning 
himself to the point of view of his character, except for two rea- 
sons: first, the character chosen to provide the point of view is 
usually very close to James himself in the quality of his intelli- 
gence, and second, the obscurity is as obvious in the early novels, 
in which the omniscient author is plainly discernible, as it is in 
the later, from which he has evaporated. This technical aim, 
however, seems to me unquestionably to result in a certain vitia- 
tion of the prose as prose: explicit and compact exposition or de- 
scription of any kind is eliminated from the later novels, the mat- 
ter that would ordinarily go into such prose being broken up and 


diffused in minutely discernible fragments through conversa- 
tions and the miscellaneous perceptions of daily life; the attempt 
is made to introduce the material that would ordinarily be con- 
veyed in such prose in a manner closely resembling the manner 
in which it entered the experience, and perhaps hovered there, 
of the character in question, so that we tend strongly in the later 
novels, so far as the prose itself is concerned, toward the fallacy 
of expressive form. The prose of The Age of Innocence or of The 
Valley of Decision is certainly superior to the prose of James; the 
prose of Melville in such a passage as that describing Dr. Cuticle 
and his operation, in White Jacket, in compactness, richness of 
implication, clarity of detail, and rhetorical variety and mastery, 
surpasses James incomparably. Mr. Beach 8 cites the following 
passage from Roderick Hudson as an example of the sort of tra- 
ditional prose which James mercifully outgrew in the later 
novels: "Rowland's second guest was also an artist, but of a very 
different type. His friends called him Sam Singleton; he was an 
American, and he had been in Rome a couple of years. He 
painted small 'landscapes, chiefly in water-color; Rowland had 
seen one of them in a shop window, had liked it extremely and, 
ascertaining his address, had gone to see him and found him es- 
tablished in a very humble studio near the Piazza Barberini, 
where apparently fame and fortune had not yet come his way. 
Rowland, treating him as a discovery, had bought several of his 
pictures; Singleton made few speeches, but was intensely grate- 
ful. Rowland heard afterwards that when he first came to Rome 
he painted worthless daubs and gave no promise of talent. Im- 
provement had come, however, hand in hand with patient in- 
dustry, and his talent, though of a slender and delicate order, was 
now incontestable. It was as yet but scantly recognized and he 
had hard work to hold out. Rowland hung his little water- 
colors on the library wall, and found that as he lived with 
them he grew very fond of them. Singleton, short and spare, 
was made as if for sitting on very small camp-stools and eating 
the tiniest luncheons. He had a transparent brown regard, a 
perpetual smile, an extraordinary expression of modesty and pa- 

8 Ibid., page 192. 

tience. He listened much more willingly than he talked, with a 
little fixed grateful grin; he blushed when he spoke, and always 
offered his ideas as if he were handing you useful objects of your 
own that you had unconsciously dropped; so that his credit could 
be at most for honesty. He was so perfect an example of the little 
noiseless devoted worker whom chance, in the person of a mon- 
eyed patron, has never taken by the hand, that Rowland would 
have liked to befriend him by stealth/* 

This is not great prose, but it is fine prose and fine perception. 
Neither as prose nor as characterization will it suffer by compari- 
son with the portrait of Mrs. Midmore cited earlier in these 
pages. One could find better sketches of the same type in the 
early novels, and even as late as the Portrait; this type of prose 
can be developed very far indeed, as one can readily discover by 
reading Melville. It does not sacrifice reality, and it can be made 
to possess both sinew and form. The mere fact that this type of 
sketch is a traditional device is irrelevant to its virtues; James's 
later method is equally a device, and more obtrusively so, since 
we are forced to concentrate upon it, and as a device it is in our 
own day no longer new. 

It would be easy to say that the virtues which I have described 
are inseparable from the methods of style which I deplore, but I 
doubt it; the virtues are already strongly marked in the early 
works, in which the later technique is not employed, so that one 
has some justification for feeling that a certain maturity of out- 
look and richness of observation increased, as a result of age and 
experience, concomitantly with a defective procedure in style, 
the result of an error in theory. It is only a step, in the matter of 
style, from The Golden Bowl to Dorothy Richardson and Proust, 
from them to the iridescent trifling of Mrs. Woolf, and from her 
to the latest Joyce; in fact James travelled the greater part of this 
distance when he wrote The Sense of the Past. I do not deny the 
genius of these writers if I did not feel it, I should not consider 
it profitable to cite them but they are all, even Proust by at least 
a perceptible margin, inferior to James, and they represent a pro- 
gressive decay, an increase in diffusion, a decrease in detailed 
effectiveness, in the matter of style. Mr. Beach, on the other hand, 


believes that James's technical development was toward perfec- 
tion; but if the prose must be weakenec^ in order to perfect the 
novel, then something is radically wrong with the novel as a 
form of art. 

It is likely that one can find an isolated novel here and there 
to surpass any by James; one might argue with considerable rea- 
son that The Age of Innocence, partly because it corrects, as I 
have shown, a serious defect in the Jamesian conception of the 
novel, partly because of its finer prose, is the finest single flower 
of the Jamesian art; one which James fertilized but would have 
been unable to bring to maturity. The Valley of Decision, a 
novel of a very different cast, might also be defended as superior 
to any single work by James, as might also Billy Budd and Ben- 
ito Cereno, which unlike most of the work of Melville are true 
novels. But neither Mrs. Wharton nor Melville can equal James 
in the vast crowd of unforgettable human beings whom he 
created; Melville, moreover, except in Billy Budd, Benito Cer- 
eno, and Israel Potter, is scarcely a novelist, and Mrs. Wharton, 
except in the two novels mentioned, in The Custom of the Coun- 
try, and in a small group of novelettes, is mediocre when she is 
not worse. 

It is James himself, as I have abundantly indicated, who holds 
our attention so constantly on his defects of conception. As I have 
shown, he was so obsessed with the problem of moral judgment 
in its relation to character, that he not only constructed his plots 
so that they turned almost wholly on problems of ethical choice, 
but he sought to isolate the ethical problem as far as possible 
from all determining or qualifying elements, an effort which in 
any period would have led to difficulty, and which in his period 
would have been sufficient to dissolve in complete obscurity any 
talent save one of the greatest. As a result of this effort at isola- 
tion, he accomplished two secondary ends which have no bearing 
upon the value of his art as such: he focussed attention forever 
upon the problems of serious plotting, and in this respect he 
probably brought about the greatest single change in the practice 
of the novel ever effected by one man; and in addition he fixed 
imperishably the finest quality of American life of his period. In 

connection with this second accomplishment, it should be added 
that he himself appears to have had but an imperfect understand- 
ing of that quality, so that he not only fixed the defects as well 
as the virtues of the quality, but did so without the comprehen- 
sion of the defects, or with a very imperfect comprehension, did 
so partly by representing them, but also, and unfortunately al- 
most more clearly by embodying them. Regarded only for the 
kind and degree of its failure, but regarded patiently and intelli- 
gently, his art is a social phenomenon equalled in its interest by 
few others in the history of our nation, and equalled, I should 
imagine, by no other in the history of our literature; it is a phe- 
nomenon as representative intensively and extensively as the 
career, let us say, of John D. Rockefeller, in another realm of ac- 
tion. To understand him, we must understand the history of 
which he is the culmination; and when we understand him, we 
have the key to most of the literature and to much else that has 
followed and is likely to follow. 


A Brief Selection of the Poems of 


Come suddenly, O Lord, or slowly come: 
1 wait thy will; thy servant ready is: 
Thou hast prepared thy follower a home, 
The heaven in which Thou dwellest, too, is his. 

Come in the morn, at noon, or midnight deep; 
Come, for thy servant still doth watch and pray: 
E'en when the world around is sunk in sleep. 
I wake and long to see thy glorious day. 

I would'not fix the time, the day, nor hour, 
When Thou with all thine angels shalt appear; 
When in thy kingdom Thou shalt come with power, - 
E'en now, perhaps, the promised day is near! 

For though in slumber deep the world may lie, 
And een thy Church forget thy great command; 
Still, year by year, thy coming draweth nigh, 
And in its power thy kingdom is at hand. 

Not in some future world alone 'twill he, 
Beyond the grave, beyond the bounds of time; 
But on the earth thy glory we shall see, 
And share thy triumph, peaceful, pure, sublime. 

Lord, help me that 1 faint not, weary grow, 
Nor at thy coming slumber, too, and sleep; 
For Thou hast promised, and full well I know 
Thou wilt to us thy word of promise keep. 



Father, I -wait thy word. The sun doth stand 

Beneath the mingling line of night and day, 

A listening servant, waiting thy command 

To roll rejoicing on its silent way; 

The tongue of time abides the appointed hour, 

Till on our ears its solemn warnings fall; 

The heavy cloud withholds the pelting shower, 

Then every drop speeds onward at thy call; 

The bird reposes on the yielding hough, 

With breast unswollen by the tide of song; 

So does my spirit wait thy presence now 

To pour thy praise in quickening life along, 

Chiding with voice divine man's lengthened sleep. 

While round the Unuttered Word and Love their vigils keep. 


'Tis a new life; thoughts move not as they did, 
With slow uncertain steps across my mind; 
In thronging haste fast pressing on they bid 
The portals open to the viewless wind, 
That comes not save when in the dust is laid 
The crown of pride that guilds each mortal brow, 
And from before mans vision melting fade 
The heavens and earth; their walls are falling now. 
Fast crowding on, each thought asks utterance strong; 
Storm-lifted waves swift rushing to the shore, 
On from the sea they send their shouts along, 
Back through the cave-worn rocks their thunders roar; 
And I, a Child of God by Christ made free, 
Start from death's slumbers to eternity. 



The night that has no star lit up by God, 

The day that round men shines who still are blind, 

The earth their grave-turned feet for ages trod, 

And sea swept over by His mighty wind? 

All these have passed, away; the melting dream 

That flitted o'er the sleepers half-shut eye, 

When touched by mornings golden-darting beam; 

And he beholds around the earth and sky 

What ever real stands; the rolling spheres, 

And heaving billows of the boundless main, 

That show, though time is past, no trace of years, 

And earth restored he sees as his again, 

The earth that fades not, and the heavens that stand, 

Their strong foundations laid by God's right hand! 


I would lie low the ground on which men tread- 
Swept by thy Spirit like the wind of heaven; 
An earth, where gushing springs and corn for bread 
By me at every season should be given; 
Yet not the water or the bread that now 
Supplies their tables with its daily food, 
But they should gather fruit from every bough, 
Such as Thou givest me, and call it good; 
And water from the stream of life should flow, 
By every dwelling that thy love has built, 
Whose taste the ransomed of thy Son shall know, 
Whose robes are washed from every stain of guilt; 
And men would own it was thy hand that blest, 
And from my bosom find a surer rest. 



I sit within my room, and joy to find 
That Thou, who always lov'st, art with me here; 
That 1 am never left by Thee behind, 
But by Thyself Thou keep'st me ever near. 
The fire burns brighter when with Thee I look, 
And seems a kinder servant sent to me; 
With gladder heart I read thy holy book, 
Because Thou art the eyes by which I see; 
This aged chair, that table, watch, and door 
Around in ready service ever wait; 
Nor can 1 ask of Thee a menial more 
To fill the measure of my large estate, 
For Thou thyself, with all a Fathers care 
Where'er I turn, art ever with me there. 


When I would sing of crooked streams and fields, 

On, on from me they stretch too far and wide, 

And at their look my song all powerless yields. 

And down the river bears me with its tide. 

Amid the fields I am a child again, 

The spots that then 1 loved 1 love the more, 

My fingers drop the strangely scrawling pen, 

And I remember nought but Natures lore. 

1 plunge me in the rivers cooling wave, 

Or on the embroidered bank admiring lean, 

Now some endangered insect life to save, 

Now watch the pictured flowers and grasses green; 

Forever playing where a boy I played, 

By hill and grove, by field and stream delayed. 



The flowers 1 pass have eyes that look at me, 
The birds have ears that hear my spirit's voice, 
And I am glad the leaping brook to see, 
Because it does at my light step rejoice. 
Come, brothers, all who tread the grassy hill, 
Or wander thoughtless o'er the blooming fields, 
Come learn the sweet obedience of the will; 
Thence every sight and sound new pleasure yields. 
Nature shall seem another house of thine, 
When He who formed thee, bids it live and play, 
And in thy rambles e'en the creeping vine 
Shall keep with thee a jocund holiday, 
And every plant, and bird, and insect be 
Thine own companions born for harmony. 

(as in the edition of 1886) 

The clear bright morning, with its scented air 
And gaily waving flowers, is here again; 
Man's heart is lifted with the voice of prayer, 
And peace descends, as falls the gentle rain; 
The tuneful birds, that all the night have slept, 
Take up at dawn the evening's dying lay, 
When sleep upon their eyelids gently crept 
And stole with gentle craft their song away. 
High overhead the forest's swaying boughs 
Sprinkle with drops the traveller on his way; 
He hears far off the tinkling bells of cows 
Driven to pasture at the break of day; 
With vigorous step he passes swift along, 
Making the woods reecho with his song. 



Why art thou not awake, my son? 
The morning breaks 1 formed for thee; 
And I thus early lay thee stand, 
Thy new-awakening life to see. 

Why are thou not awake, my son? 
The birds upon the bough rejoice; 
And I thus early by thee stand, 
To hear with theirs thy tuneful voice. 

Why sleep st thou still? The laborers all 
Are in my vineyard: hear them toil, 
As for the poor, with harvest song 
They treasure up the wine and oil. 

1 come to wake thee; haste, arise, 
Or thou no share with Me can find; 
Thy sandals seize, gird on thy clothes, 
Or I must leave thee far behind. 


Wilt Thou not visit me? 
The plant beside me feels thy gentle deiv, 

And every blade of grass 1 see 
From thy deep earth its quickening moisture drew. 

Wilt Thou not visit me? 
Thy morning calls on me with cheering tone; 

And every hill and tree 
Lend but one voice, the voice of Thee alone. 

Come, for I need thy love, 
More than the flower the dew or grass the rain; 


Come gently as thy holy dove; 
And let me in thy sight rejoice to live again. 

not hide from them 
When thy storms come, though fierce may be their wrath, 

But bow with leafy stem, 
And strengthened follow on thy chosen path. 

Yes, Thou wilt visit me: 
Nor plant nor tree thine eye delimits so well, 

As, when from sin set free, 
My spirit loves with thine in peace to dwell. 


The house my earthly parent left 

My heavenly parent still throws down, 

For 'tis of air and sun bereft, 

Nor stars its roof with beauty crown. 

He gave it me, yet gave it not 
As one whose gifts are wise and good; 
'Twas lout a poor and clay-built cot, 
And for a time the storms withstood. 

But lengthening years and frequent rain 
O'ercame its strength: it tottered, fell, 
And left me homeless here again, 
And where to go 1 could not tell. 

But soon the light and open air 
Received me as a wandering child, 
And I soon thought their house more fair, 
And all my grief their love beguiled. 

Mine was the grove, the pleasant field 
Where dwelt the flowers 1 daily trod; 


And there beside them, too, 1 kneeled 
And called their friend, my Father, God. 


Still blooming on, when Summer flowers all fade, 
The golden-rods and asters fill the glade; 
The tokens they of an Exhaustless Love 
That ever to the end doth constant prove. 

To one fair tribe another still succeeds, 
As still the heart new forms of beauty needs; 
Till these bright children of the waning year, 
Its latest born, have come our souls to cheer. 

They glance upon us from their fringed eyes, 
And to their look our own in love replies; 
Within our hearts we find for them a place, 
As for the flowers which early spring-time grace. 

Despond not, traveler! On lifes lengthened way, 
When all thy early friends have passed away; 
Say not, "No more the beautiful doth live, 
And to the earth a bloom and fragrance give." 

To every season has our Father given 
Some tokens of his love to us from heaven; 
Nor leaves us here, uncheered, to walk alone, 
When all we loved and prized in youth have gone. 

Let but thy heart go forth to all around, 
Still by thy side the beautiful is found; 
Along thy path the autumn flowers shall smile, 
And to its close lifes pilgrimage beguile. 



I looked to find Springs early flowers, 
In spots where they were wont to bloom; 

But they had perished in their bowers; 

The haunts they loved had proved their tomb! 

The alder, and the laurel green, 

Which sheltered them, had shared their fate; 
And but the blackened ground was seen, 

Where hid their swelling buds of late. 

From the bewildered, homeless bird, 

Whose half-built nest the flame destroys, 

A low complaint of wrong I heard, 
Against the thoughtless, ruthless boys. 

Sadly I heard its notes complain, 

Ana ask the young its haunts to spare; 

Prophetic seemed the sorrowing strain, 
Sung oer its home, but late so fair! 

"No more with hues like ocean shell 

The delicate wind-flower here shall blow; 
The spot that loved its form so well 
Shall ne'er again its beauty know. 

"Or, if it bloom, like some pale ghost 

'Twill haunt the black and shadeless dell, 
Where once it bloomed a numerous host, 
Of its once pleasant bowers to tell. 

"And coming years no more shall find 

The laurel green upon the hills; 
The frequent fire leaves naught behind, 
But een the very roots it kills. 


"No more upon the turnpikes side 

The rose shall shed its sweet perfume; 
The travelers joy, the summers pride, 
Will share with them a common doom. 

"No more shall these returning fling 

Round childhood's home a heavenly charm, 
With song of bird in early spring, 

To glad the heart and save from harm. )f 


I saw one horn, yet he was of the dead; 

Long since the spirit ceased to give us birth; 
For lust to sin, and sin to death, had led, 

And now its children people o'er the earth. 

And yet he thought he lived, and as he grew 

Looked round upon the world and called it fair; 

For of the heaven he lost he never knew, 
Though oft he pined in spirit to he there. 

And he lived on, the earth became his home, 
Nor learnt he aught of those who came before; 

For they had ceased to wish from thence to roam, 
And for the better land could not deplore. 

Time passed, and he was buried; lo! the dust 
From which he first was taken him received; 

Yet in his dying hour ne'er ceased his trust, 

And still his soul for something heavenly grieved. 

And we will hope that there is One who gave 
The rest he sighed for, but the world denied; 

That yet his voice is heard beyond the grave, 
That he yet lives who to our vision died. 



Upon the Plymouth shore the -wild rose blooms, 
As when the Pilgrims lived beside the hay, 
And scents the morning air with sweet perfumes; 
Though new this hour > more ancient far than they; 
More ancient than the wild, yet friendly race. 
That roved the land before the Pilgrims came, 
And here for ages found a dwelling-place, 
Of whom our histories tell us but a name! 
Though new this hour, out from the past it springs, 
Telling this summer morning of earth's prime; 
And happy visions of the future brings, 
That reach beyond, een to the verge of time; 
Wreathing earths children in one flowery chain 
Of love and beauty, ever to remain. 


Man has forgot his origin; in vain 

He searches for the record of his race 

In ancient books, or seeks with toil to gain 

From the deep cave, or rocks, some primal trace. 

And some have fancied, from a higher sphere, 

Forgetful of his origin, he came, 

To dwell awhile a wandering exile here, 

Subject to sense, another, yet the same. 

With mind bewildered, weak, how should he know 

The Source Divine from whom his being springs? 

The darkened spirit does its shadow throw 

On written record and on outward things, 

That else might plainly to his thought reveal 

The wondrous truths which now they but conceal. 



' Tis near the morning watch: the dim lamp burns, 
But scarcely shows how dark the slumbering street; 
No sound of life the silent mart returns; 
No friends from house to house their neighbors greet. 
It is the sleefy of death, a deeper sleep 
Than e'er before on mortal eyelids fell; 
No stars above the gloom their places keep; 
No faithful watchmen of the morning tell; 
Yet still they slumber on, though rising day 
Hath through their windows poured the awakening light; 
Or, turning in their sluggard trances, say, 
"There yet are many hours to fill the night." 
They rise not yet; while on the Bridegroom goes 
Till He the day's bright gates forever on them close. 


The prison-house is full; there is no cell 
But hath its prisoner laden with his chains; 
And yet they live as though their life was well, 
Nor of its burdening sin the soul complains; 
Thou dost not see where thou hast lived so long, 
The place is called the skull where thou dost tread. 
Why laugh' st thou, then, why sing the sportive song, 
As if thou livest, and know'st not thou art dead. 
Yes, thou art dead, the morn breaks o'er thee now, 
Where is thy Father, He who gave thee birth? 
Thou art a severed limb, a barren bough, 
Thou sleepest in deep caverns in the earth. 
Awake! thou hast a glorious race to run; 
Put on thy strength, thou hast not yet begun. 



Tis to yourself I speak; you cannot know 

Him -whom I call in speaking such a one, 

For you beneath the earth lie buried low, 

Which he alone as living walks upon: 

You may at times have heard him speak to you, 

And often wished perchance that you were he; 

And I must ever wish that it were true, 

And then you could hold fellowship with me: 

But now you hear us talk as strangers, met 

Above the room wherein you lie abed; 

A word perhaps loud spoken you may get, 

Or hear our feet when heavily they tread; 

But he who speaks, or him who's spoken to, 

Must both remain as strangers still to you. 


Thou art not yet at home; perhaps thy feet 

Are on the threshold of thy leathers door, 

But still thy journey is not there complete, 

If thou canst add to it but one step more; 

Tis not thy house which thou with feet can reach, 

'Tis where when wearied they will enter not, 

But step beneath an earthly roof, where each 

May for a time find comfort in his lot; 

Then called to wander soon again must mourn 

That such frail shelter they should call relief; 

And onward seek again that distant bourne, 

The home of all the family of grief, 

Whose doors by day and night stand open wide, 

For all who enter there shall evermore abide. 



The bitterness of death is on me now, 

Before me stands its dark unclosing door; 

Yet to Thy will submissive still I bow, 

And follow Him who for me went before; 

The tomb cannot contain me though I die, 

For His strong love awakes its sleeping dead, 

And bids them through Himself ascend on high 

To Him who is of all the living Head; 

1 gladly enter through the gloomy walls, 

Where they have passed who loved their Master here; 

The voice they heard, to me it onward calls, 

And can when faint my sinking spirit cheer; 

And from the joy on earth it now has given 

Lead on to joy eternal in the heaven. 


The Anatomy of 



Is IT POSSIBLE to say that Poem A (one of Donne's Holy Son- 
nets,, or one of the poems of Jonson or of Shakespeare) is better 
than Poem B (Collins' Ode to Evening) or vice versa? 

If not, is it possible to say that either of these is better than 
Poem C (The Cremation of Sam Magee, or something com- 

If the answer is no in both cases, then any poem is as good as 
any other. If this is true, then all poetry is worthless; but this 
obviously is not true, for it is contrary to all our experience. 

If the answer is yes in both cases, then there follows the ques- 
tion of whether the answer implies merely that one poem is better 
than another for the speaker, or whether it means that one poem 
is intrinsically better than another. If the former, then we are 
impressionists, which is to say relativists; and are either mystics of 
the type of Emerson, or hedonists of the type of Stevens and 
Ransom. If the latter, then we assume that constant principles 
govern the poetic experience, and that the poem (as likewise the 
judge) must be judged in relationship to those principles. It is 
important, therefore, to discover the consequences of assuming 
each of these positions. 

If our answer to the first question is no and to the second yes, 
then we are asserting that we can distinguish between those 
poems which are of the canon and those which are not, but 
that within the canon all judgment is impossible. This view, if 
adopted, will require serious elucidation, for on the face of it, it 
appears inexplicable. On the other hand, one cannot deny that 


within the canon judgment will become more difficult, for the 
nearer two poems may be to the highest degrees of excellence, 
the harder it will be to choose between them. Two poems, in 
fact, might be so excellent that there would be small profit in 
endeavoring to say that one was better, but one could arrive at 
this conclusion only after a careful examination of both. 


If we accept the view that one poem can be regarded as better 
than another, the question then arises whether this judgment 
is a matter of inexplicable intuition, or whether it is a question 
of intuition that can be explained, and consequently guided and 
improved by rational elucidation. 

If we accept the view that the judgment in question is inex- 
plicable, then we are again forced to confess ourselves impres- 
sionists and relativists, unless we can show that the intuitions of 
all men agree at all times, or that the intuitions of one man are 
invariably right and those of all others wrong whenever they 
differ. We obviously can demonstrate neither of these proposi- 

If we start, then, with the proposition that one poem may be 
intrinsically superior to another, we are forced to account for 
differences of opinion regarding it. If two critics differ, it is pos- 
sible that one is right and the other wrong, more likely that both 
are partly right and partly wrong, but in different respects: 
neither the native gifts nor the education of any man have ever 
been wholly adequate to many of the critical problems he will 
encounter, and no two men are ever the same in these respects 
or in any others. On the other hand, although the critic should 
display reasonable humility and caution, it is only fair to add that 
few men possess either the talent or the education to justify their 
being taken very seriously, even of those who are nominally pro- 
fessional students of these matters. 

But if it is possible by rational elucidation to give a more or 
less clear account of what one finds in a poem and why one 


approves or disapproves, then communication between two 
critics, though no doubt imperfect, becomes possible, and it be- 
comes possible that they may in some measure correct each other's 
errors and so come more near to a true judgment of the poem. 


If rational communication about poetry is to take place, it is 
necessary first to determine what we mean by a poem. 

A poem is first of all a statement in words. 

But it differs from all such statements of a purely philosoph- 
ical or theoretical nature, in that it has by intention a controlled 
content of feeling. In this respect, it does not differ from many 
works written in prose, however. 

A poem differs from a work written in prose by virtue of its 
being composed in verse. The rhythm of verse permits the ex- 
pression of more powerful feeling than is possible in prose when 
such feeling is needed, and it permits at all times the expression 
of finer shades of feeling. 

A poem, then, is a statement in words in which special pains 
arc taken with the expression of feeling. This description is 
merely intended to distinguish the poem from other kinds of 
writing; it is not offered as a complete description. 


What, however, are words? 

They arc audible sounds, or their visual symbols, invented 
by man to communicate his thoughts and feelings. Each word 
has a conceptual content, however slight; each word, exclusive, 
perhaps, of the particles, communicates vague associations of 

The word fire communicates a concept; it also connotes very 
vaguely certain feelings, depending on the context in which 
we happen to place it depending, for example, on whether we 
happen to think of a fire on a hearth, in a furnace, or in a forest. 


These feelings may be rendered more and more precise as we 
render the context more and more precise; as we come more and 
more near to completing and perfecting our poem. 


But if the poem, as compared to prose, pays especial attention 
to feeling, are we to assume that the rational content of the poem 
is unimportant to its success? 

The rational content cannot be eliminated from words; con- 
sequently the rational content cannot be eliminated from poetry. 
It is there. If it is unsatisfactory in itself, a part of the poem is un- 
satisfactory; the poem is thus damaged beyond argument. If we 
deny this, we must surely explain ourselves very fully. 

If we admit this, we are faced with another problem: is it con- 
ceivable that rational content and feeling-content may both be 
perfect, and yet that they may be unrelated to each other, or im- 
perfectly related? To me this is inconceivable, because the emo- 
tional contentof words is generated by our experience with the 
conceptual content, so that a relationship is necessary. 

This fact of the necessity of such relationship may fairly re- 
turn us for a moment to the original question: whether imper- 
fection of rational content damages the entire poem. If there is a 
necessary relationship between concept and feeling, and concept 
is unsatisfactory, then feeling must be damaged by way of the 


If there is a relationship between concept and feeling, what is 
the nature of that relationship? 

To answer this, let us return to the basic unit, the word. The 
concept represented by the word, motivates the feeling which 
the word communicates. It is the concept of fire which generates 
the feelings communicated by the word, though the sound of the 
word may modify these feelings very subtly, as may other acci- 
dental qualities, especially if the word be used skillfully in a 


given context. The accidental qualities of a word, however, such 
as its literary history, for example, can only modify, cannot essen- 
tially change, for these will be governed ultimately by the con- 
cept; that is, fire will seldom be used to signify plum-blossom, 
and so will have few opportunities to gather connotations from 
the concept, plum-blossom. The relationship, in the poem, be- 
tween rational statement and feeling, is thus seen to be that of 
motive to emotion. 


But has not this reasoning brought us back to the proposition 
that all poems are equally good? For if each word motivates its 
own feeling, because of its intrinsic nature, will not any rational 
statement, since it is composed of words, motivate the feeling 
exactly proper to it? 

This is not true, for a good many reasons, of which I shall 
enumerate only a few of the more obvious. In making a rational 
statement, in purely theoretical prose, we find that our state- 
ment may be loose or exact, depending upon the relationships of 
the words to each other. The precision of a word depends to some 
extent upon its surroundings. This is true likewise with respect 
to the connotations of words. Two words, each of which has 
several usably close rational synonyms, may reinforce and clarify 
each other with respect to their connotations or they may not 
do so. 

Let me illustrate with a simple example from Browning's 
Serenade at the Villa: 

So wore night; the East was gray, 

White the broad-faced hemlock flowers. 

The lines are marred by a crowding of long syllables and difficult 
consonants, but they have great beauty in spite of the fault. What 
I wish to point out, for the sake of my argument, is the relation- 
ship between the words wore and gray. The verb wore means 
literally that the night passed, but it carries with it connotations 


of exhaustion and attrition which belong to the condition of the 
protagonist; and grayness is a color which we associate with such 
a condition. If we change the phrase to read: "Thus night 
passed/* we shall have the same rational meaning, and a meter 
quite as respectable, but no trace of the power of the line: the 
connotation of wore will be lost, and the connotation of gray will 
remain merely in a state of ineffective potentiality. The pro- 
tagonist in seeing his feeling mirrored in the landscape is not 
guilty of motivating his feeling falsely, for we know his general 
motive from the poem as a whole; he is expressing a portion of 
the feeling motivated by the total situation through a more or less 
common psychological phenomenon. If the poem were such, 
however, that we did not know why the night wore instead of 
passed, we should have just cause for complaint; in fact, most of 
the strength of the word would probably be lost. The second line 
contains other fine effects, immediately with reference to the 
first line, ultimately with reference to the theme; I leave the reader 
to analyze them for himself, but he will scarcely succeed without 
the whole poenl before him. 

Concepts, as represented by particular words, are affected by 
connotations due to various and curious accidents. A word may 
gather connotations from its use in folk-poetry, in formal poetry, 
in vulgar speech, or in technical prose: a single concept might 
easily be represented by four words with these distinct histories; 
and any one of the words might prove to be proper in a given 
poetic context. Words gain connotation from etymological acci- 
dents. Something of this may be seen in the English word out- 
rage, in which is commonly felt, in all likelihood, something 
associated with rage, although there is no rage whatever in the 
original word. Similarly the word urchin, in modern English, 
seldom connotes anything related to hedgehogs, or to the familiars 
of the witches, by whose intervention the word arrived at its 
modern meaning and feeling. Yet the connotation proper to any 
stage in the history of such a word might be resuscitated, or a 
blend of connotations effected, by skillful use. Further, the con- 
notation of a word may be modified very strongly by its function 

in the metrical structure, a matter which I shall discuss at length 
in connection with the theories of Ransom. 

This is enough to show that exact motivation of feeling by 
concept is not inherent in any rational statement. Any rational 
statement will govern the general possibilities of feeling deriv- 
able from it, but the task of the poet is to adjust feeling to motive 
precisely. He has to select words containing not only the right 
relationships within themselves, but the right relationships to 
each other. The task is very difficult; and this is no doubt the 
reason why the great poetry of a great poet is likely to be very 
small in bulk. 


Is it not possible, however, to escape from this relationship of 
motive to emotion by confining ourselves very largely to those 
words which denote emotion: love, envy, anger, and the like? 

This is not possible, for these words, like others, represent 
concepts. If we should confine ourselves strictly to such a vocabu- 
lary, we should merely write didactic poetry: poetry about love 
in general, or about anger in general. The emotion communi- 
cated would result from our apprehension of the ideas in ques- 
tion. Such poetry is perfectly legitimate, but it is only one kind of 
poetry, and it is scarcely the kind which the Romantic theorist 
is endeavoring to define. 

Such poetry has frequently been rendered particular by the 
use of allegory. The playful allegorizing of minor amoristic 
themes which one encounters in the Renaissance and which 
is possibly descended from certain neo-Platonic elements in 
medieval poetry may serve as illustration. Let us consider these 
and the subsequent lines by Thomas Lodge: 

Love in my bosom like a bee 

Doth suck his sweet; 
Now with his wings he plays with me, 

Now with his feet. 


Love itself is a very general idea and might include many kinds 
of experience; the idea is limited by this allegory to the senti- 
mental and sensual, but we still have an idea, the subdivision of 
the original idea, and the feeling must be appropriate to the con- 
cept. The concept is rendered concrete by the image of Cupid, 
whose actions, in turn, are rendered visible by comparison to the 
bee: it is these actions which make the poem a kind of anticipa- 
tory meditation on more or less sensual love, a meditation which 
by its mere tone of expression keeps the subject in its proper place 
as a very minor one. Sometimes the emphasis is on the mere 
description of the bee, sometimes on the description of Cupid, 
sometimes on the lover's feeling; but the feeling motivated in any 
passage is governed by this emphasis. The elements, once they 
are united in the poem, are never really separated, of course. In 
so far as the poet departs from his substantial theme in the direc- 
tion of mere bees and flowers, he will achieve what Ransom calls 
irrelevance; but if there is much of this the poem will be weak- 
ened. Whether he so departs or not, the relation of motive to 
emotion must rehiain the same, within each passage. I have dis- 
cussed this problem in my essay on Ransom. 

A common romantic practice is to use words denoting emo- 
tions, but to use them loosely and violently, as if the very careless- 
ness expressed emotion. Another is to make a general statement, 
but seem to refer it to a particular occasion, which, however, is 
never indicated: the poet thus seems to avoid the didactic, yet he 
is not forced to understand the particular motive. Both these 
faults may be seen in these lines from Shelley: 

Out of the day and night 
A joy has taken flight; 

Fresh spring, and summer, and winter hoar, 
Move my faint heart with grief, but with delight 
No more oh, never more. 

The poet's intention is so vague, however, that he achieves noth- 
ing but stereotypes of a very crude kind. 

The Romantics often tried other devices. For example, it 
would be possible to write a poem on fear in general, but to avoid 
in some measure the effect of the purely didactic by illustrating 
the emotion along the way with various experiences which might 
motivate fear. There is a danger here, though it is merely a danger, 
that the general idea may not dominate the poem, and that the 
poem may thus fall apart into a group of poems on particular ex- 
periences. There is the alternative danger, that the particular 
quality of the experiences may be so subordinated to the illustra- 
tive function of the experiences, that within each illustration there 
is merely a stereotyped and not a real relationship of motive to 
feeling: this occurs in Collins' Ode to Fear, though a few lines 
in the Epode come surprisingly to life. But the methods which I 
have just described really offer no semblance of an escape from 
the theory of motivation which I am defending. 

Another Romantic device, if it is conscious enough to be called 
a device, is to offer instead of a defensible motive a false one, 
usually culled from landscape. This kind of writing represents a 
tacit admission of the principle of motivation which I am defend- 
ing, but a bad application of the principle. It results in the kind 
of writing which I have called pseudo-reference in my volume, 
Primitivism and Decadence. One cannot believe, for example, 
that Wordsworth's passions were charmed away by a look at the 
daffodils, or that Shelley's were aroused by the sight of the leaves 
blown about in the autumn wind. A motive is offered, and the 
poet wants us to accept it, but we recognize it as inadequate. In 
such a poem there may be fragments of good description, which 
motivate a feeling more or less purely appropriate to the objects 
described, and these fragments may sustain our liking for the 
poem: this happens in Collins' Ode to Evening; but one will find 
also an account of some kind of emotion essentially irrelevant to 
the objects described, along with the attempt, more or less ex- 
plicit, to deduce the emotion from the object. 

There remains the method of the Post-Romantics, whether 
French Symbolists or American Experimentalists: the method 
of trying to extinguish the rational content of language while 


retaining the content of association. This method I have dis- 
cussed in Primitivism and Decadence, and I shall discuss it again 
in this book. 


The relationship in the poem of rational meaning to feeling we 
have seen to be that of motive to emotion; and we have seen that 
this must be a satisfactory relationship. How do we determine 
whether such a relationship is satisfactory? We determine it by 
an act of moral judgment. The question then arises whether 
moral judgments can be made, whether the concept of morality 
is or is not an illusion. 

If morality can be considered real, if a theory of morality can 
be said to derive from reality, it is because it guides us toward the 
greatest happiness which the accidents of life permit: that is, 
toward the fullest realization of our nature, in the Aristotelian or 
Thomistic sense. But is there such a thing, abstractly considered, 
as full realization of our nature? 

To avoid discussion of too great length, let us consider the 
opposite question: is there such a thing as obviously unfulfilled 
human nature? Obviously there is. We need only turn to the 
feeble-minded, who cannot think and so cannot perceive or feel 
with any clarity; or to the insane, who sometimes perceive and 
feel with great intensity, but whose feelings and perceptions are 
so improperly motivated that they are classed as illusions. At 
slightly higher levels, the criminal, the dissolute, the unscrupu- 
lously selfish, and various types of neurotics are likely to arouse 
but little disagreement as examples. 

Now if we are able to recognize the fact of insanity if in fact 
we are forced to recognize it that is, the fact of the obvious mal- 
adjustment of feeling to motive, we are forced to admit the pos- 
sibility of more accurate adjustment, and, by necessary sequence, 
of absolutely accurate adjustment, even though we admit the 
likelihood that most people will attain to a final adjustment but 
very seldom indeed. We can guide ourselves toward such an 


adjustment in life, as in art, by means of theory and the critical 
examination of special instances; but the final act of judgment is 
in both life and art a unique act it is a relationship between two 
elements, the rational understanding and the feeling, of which 
only one is classificatory and of which the other has infinite pos- 
sibilities of variation. 


If the final act of adjustment is a unique act of judgment, can 
we say that it is more or less right, provided it is demonstrably 
within the general limits prescribed by the theory of morality 
which has led to it? The answer to this question is implicit in 
what has preceded; in fact the answer resembles exactly that 
reached at the end of the first problem examined. We can say 
that it is more or less nearly right. If extreme deviation from right 
judgment is obvious, then there is such a thing as right judgment. 
The mere fact that life may be conducted in a fairly satisfactory 
manner, by means of inaccurate judgment within certain limits, 
and that few people ever bother to refine their judgment beyond 
the stage which enables them to remain largely within those 
limits, does not mean that accurate judgment has no reality. Im- 
plicit in all that has preceded is the concept that in any moral 
situation, there is a right judgment as an ultimate possibility; that 
the human judge, or actor, will approximate it more or less nearly; 
that the closeness of his approximation will depend upon the 
accuracy of his rational understanding and of his intuition, and 
upon the accuracy of their interaction upon each other. 


Nothing has thus far been said about human action, yet morality 
is supposed to guide human action. And if art is moral, there 
should be a relationship between art and human action. 

The moral judgment, whether good, bad, or indifferent, is 
commonly the prelude and instigation to action. Hastily or care- 

37 1 

fully, intelligently or otherwise, one arrives at some kind of 
general idea of a situation calling for action, and one's idea moti- 
vates one's feeling: the act results. The part played by will, or the 
lack of it, between judgment and act, the possibility that action 
may be frustrated by some constitutional or habitual weakness 
or tendency, such as cowardice or a tendency to anger, in a per- 
son of a fine speculative or poetic judgment, are subjects for a 
treatise on ethics or psychology; a treatise on poetry stops with 
the consideration of the speculative judgment, which reaches its 
best form and expression in poetry. In the situations of daily life, 
one does not, as a rule, write a poem before acting: one makes a 
more rapid and simple judgment. But if the poem does not 
individually lead to a particular act, it does not prevent action. It 
gives us a better way of judging representative acts than we 
should otherwise have. It is thus a civilizing influence: it trains 
our power of judgment, and should, I imagine, affect the quality 
of daily judgments and actions* 


What, then, is the nature of the critical process^ 

It will consist (1) of the statement of such historical or bio- 
graphical knowledge as may be necessary in order to understand 
the mind and method of the writer; (2) of such analysis of his 
literary theories as we may need to understand and evaluate what 
he is doing; (3) of a rational critique of the paraphrasable con- 
tent (roughly, the motive) of the poem; (4) of a rational critique 
of the feeling motivated that is, of the details of style, as seen 
in language and technique; and (5) of the final act of judgment, 
a unique act, the general nature of which can be indicated, but 
which cannot be communicated precisely, since it consists in re- 
ceiving from the poet his own final and unique judgment of his 
matter and in judging that judgment. It should be noted that the 
purpose of the first four processes is to limit as narrowly as pos- 
sible the region in which the final unique act is to occur. 

In the actual writing of criticism, a given task may not require 
all of these processes, or may not require that all be given equal 


emphasis; or it may be that in connection with a certain writer, 
whether because of the nature of the writer or because of the 
way in which other critics have treated him previously, one or 
two of these processes must be given so much emphasis that 
others must be neglected for lack of space. These are practical 
matters to be settled as the occasions arise. 


or The Creation of Confusion 


HENRY ADAMS saw modern history as a progress from unified 
understanding, or the illusion of such, in the century following 
the year 1150, toward the dispersion of understanding and force 
in the twentieth century; and he saw himself as the product of 
an earlier New England. In regard to himself he was correct; 
and as for modern history, his view of it, though scarcely defen- 
sible, provides a clue to certain historical processes of which the 
history of New England is perhaps the most dramatic single 

The history immediately relevant to an understanding of 
Adams' mind might be said to begin with the first great theo- 
logical critics of Aquinas, especially with Ockham. Aquinas 
endeavored as far as possible to establish a separation between 
philosophy and theology; philosophy was guided by natural rea- 
son, theology was derived from Revelation. But he believed that 
philosophical knowledge was possible, and in his pursuit of it, he 
composed the most complete and lucid critique of previous 
philosophy that had been made, and the most thorough and 
defensible moral and philosophical system, in all likelihood, that 
the world has known. 

Ockham, the most profound of the medieval nominalists, 
struck at the very heart of this philosophy by attacking the reality 
of universals, by endeavoring to show the illusory nature of all 


ideas whatsoever. Etienne Gilson has described the immediate 
results as follows: 1 

Thus blended together, Empiricism and theologism made a most 
explosive combination. At the top of the world, a God whose abso- 
lute power knew no limits, not even those of a stable nature en- 
dowed with a necessity and an intelligibility of its own. Between 
His will and the countless individuals that co-exist in space or suc- 
ceed each other and glide away in time, there was strictly nothing. 
Having expelled from the mind of God the intelligible world of 
Plato, Ockham was satisfied that no intelligibility could be found in 
any one of God's works. How could there be order in nature, when 
there is no nature? And how could there be a nature when each 
singular being, thing, or event, can claim no other justification for 
its existence than that of being one among the elect of an all-powerful 
God? That was not the God of theology, but of theologism; for 
though the living God of theology be infinitely more than the 
"Author of Nature/' He is at least that, whereas Ockham's God was 
not even that. Instead of being an eternal source of that concrete 
order of intelligibility and beauty, which we call nature, Ockham's 
God was expressly intended to relieve the world of the necessity 
of having any meaning of its own. The God of theology always 
vouches for nature; the jealous God of theologism usually prefers to 
abolish it. 

The universe of Ockham here described bears a precise resem- 
blance, as we shall eventually see, to the universe of Henry 
Adams, with this exception: that in the universe of Henry Adams 
there is no God. In the universe of Ockham, all morality and 
moral knowledge, or what we call such, are independent of 
nature, and depend directly from the arbitrary will of God; and 
had that will chanced to be otherwise, they would then have 
been otherwise. We have no way of obtaining knowledge of man 
through the study of man; we are the recipients of arbitrary in- 
structions which we disobey at our peril. In the universe of 
Aquinas, which resembles in many important respects that of his 
great predecessor, Aristotle, we can learn a great deal by the light 

1 The Unity of Philosophical Experience, by Etienne Gilson, Scribners, 1937. 
P. 85. 


of natural reason. The universe was created by God, it is true; but 
it was so created as to pursue its own laws, and those laws, includ- 
ing many which govern the nature of man, can be discovered 
with reasonable accuracy after careful examination of the data 
before us. The risk which Ockham ran is clearly stated by 
Gilson: 2 

Different as they may be, owing to the various times, places and 
civilizations in which they were conceived, these doctrines resemble 
each other at least in this, that all of them are thoroughly intoxi- 
cated with a definite religious feeling which I beg leave to call, for 
simplicity's sake, the feeling of the Glory of God. Needless to say, 
there is no true religion without that feeling. The deeper it is, the 
better it is; but it is one thing to experience a certain feeling deeply, 
and another thing to allow it to dictate, uncontrolled by reason, a 
completely rounded interpretation of the world. When and where 
piety is permitted to inundate the philosophical field, the usual out- 
come is that, the better to extol the Glory of God, pious-minded 
theologians proceed joyfully to annihilate God's own creation. God 
is great and high and almighty; what better proof could be given 
of these 'truths than that nature and man are essentially insignifi- 
cant, low and utterly powerless creatures? A very dangerous method 
indeed, for in the long run it is bound to hurt both philosophy and 
religion. In such a case the sequence of doctrines too often runs in 
the following way: with the best intentions in the world, some 
theologian suggests, as a philosophically established truth, that God 
is and does everything, while nature and man are and do nothing; 
then comes a philosopher who grants the theologian's success in 
proving that nature is powerless, but emphasizes his failure to prove 
that there is a God. Hence the logical conclusion that nature is 
wholly deprived of reality and intelligibility. This is scepticism, and 
it cannot be avoided in such cases. Now one can afford to live on 
philosophical scepticism, so long as it is backed by a positive re- 
ligious faith; yet, even while our faith is there, one still remains a 
sceptic in philosophy, and were faith ever to go, what would be left 
of us but an absolute sceptic? 

Once a more or less Ockhamist position is taken, there are 
various ways by which faith may be lost, as one can discover by 
examining the history of European thought from the time of 

2 Ibid. pp. 37-8. 

Ockham to the present. Moreover, Ockham was by no means the 
inventor of the general religious position which he took; he was 
merely the last of its great defenders, and as a logician the greatest 
of them. The type of Christianity to place faith, which results 
from an act of the will made possible by Divine Grace, above 
understanding, has its first great exponent in Augustine, but is 
older than Augustine. This type of Christianity, the fideistic, or 
voluntaristic, derives all knowledge from faith and Revelation, 
and refuses to take the natural reason seriously; and although 
some voluntarists are willing to argue rationally from Revelation, 
their theology leads commonly and rapidly to a daily dependence 
upon Grace and distrust of reason that is, to extreme mysticism. 
Aquinas was a sane enough man to wish to make the most of all 
his faculties, and a good enough Christian to believe that God 
had given him his faculties for use. 

The voluntaristic tradition seems to have grown upon Chris- 
tianity of all kinds since the fifteenth century, but especially 
upon the western churches severed from Rome. Voluntarism 
is an easy form of Christianity for those who arc not vigorous 
intellectually but who are slow to give up old habits, and it may 
for this reason have gained upon the Church of England and 
upon the Episcopal Church in the United States, churches in 
which faith seems to have died so slowly and gently that its 
demise is only half suspected today. 3 It was in Calvinism, how- 
ever, that voluntarism received its logical expression, and it was 
in New England that Calvinism was able to work out its own 
natural development with less interference or outside influence 
than was possible anywhere in Europe. 

The Calvinistic doctrines were all doctrines that should have 
followed naturally from the position taken by Ockham: the doc- 
trine of predestination, or the arbitrary separation from all eter- 
nity of the few to be saved from the many to be damned; the 
doctrine of God's Decrees, or the predestination from all eternity 
of every event, to the falling of the last leaf; the doctrine of justi- 

3 One of the many amusing comments which I have heard attributed to the 
late David Starr Jordan goes somewhat as follows: "The Episcopal Church is 
so constituted that its members can really believe anything; but of course almost 
none of them do." 


fication by faith alone; the doctrine, closely allied to the last, of 
the inefficaciousness of good works; and the doctrine of Grace as 
an experience essentially mystical and almost melodramatic in its 

Yet the Christians of the Reformation, in spite of their anti- 
moral theology, were extremely moral people; and the Refor- 
mation itself was in a large measure a protest against the abuses 
which had grown up in the Roman Church during a period of 
decadence. One needed courage, both physical and moral, to go 
with Luther and Calvin; and of those who believed with the 
reformers in England, perhaps the most convinced, the most 
indomitably moral, were those who went into the wilderness 
rather than compromise their convictions. 

But their morality remained fideistic. Good works were good, 
not because of their intrinsic worth, but because God had arbi- 
trarily termed them so; good works were the fruits of faith, but 
could accomplish nothing in themselves; and faith was the arbi- 
trary gift^of God, which only a few would receive. Works appar- 
ently good, but performed by those not of the elect, were a 
delusion. And yet in most Calvinistic systems, and by nearly all 
Calvinistic preachers, man was held morally responsible to God 
for his behavior. The Calvinists, in refusing to distinguish, with 
Aquinas, between the ideas of Divine prescience and Divine pre- 
destination, which was purely a philosophical matter, found 
themselves confronted with the very practical conflict between 
the ideas of predestination and of man's moral responsibility for 
his acts. The wiser Calvinistic writers have admitted that the 
ideas are logically incompatible with each other and have said 
that the conflict is a mystery understood by God alone; but the 
New England Calvinists, in the isolation of their new commu- 
nity, endeavored all too often to argue their way free; and the re- 
sult was the destruction of theology. Since the philosophic under- 
standing of morality was essentially lost in their tradition, the 
source of it having been renounced, the death of theology, which 
alone could give authority for moral principles or behavior, was a 
very serious matter; and it was the more serious because New 


England Calvinism had generated in its adherents very intense 
moral habits. 

These habits, as I have indicated, must have been very strong 
in the founders of Massachusetts, and the continuation of them 
may have been in part merely the biological inheritance of a con- 
stitutional tendency; but the situation in Massachusetts must 
have done much to perpetuate and strengthen them. The New 
Englanders, as predestinarians, believed that they had been sent 
into a new land to found a pure church; not only were they the 
elect of God, but they represented the ultimate and predestined 
culmination of Christian history, which in turn was the predes- 
tined triumph of all preceding human history: these simple men 
in a struggle for life against the wilderness represented the dra- 
matic victory of religion, toward which God had ordained the 
progress of the world. This view was seriously taken, and it was 
seriously expressed at the time by many writers; the reader may 
examine it in its completeness in Cotton Mather's Introduction 
to the Magnolia Christi Americana, an Introduction of which 
the opening recalls the opening of the Aeneid, and which sets 
out to summarize the matter of the Christian epic: 

I write the Wonders of the Christian Religion, flying from the 
depravations of Europe, to the American Strand: and, assisted by 
the Holy Author of that Religion, I do, with all conscience of 
Truth, required therein by Him, who is the Truth itself, report the 
wonderful displays of His infinite Power, Wisdom, Goodness, and 
Faithfulness, wherewith His Divine Providence hath irradiated an 
Indian Wilderness. 

The morality of these men may have been in fact merely 
habitual, but in theory it was predestined and arbitrary, as I 
have said. It did not derive, theoretically, from an understand- 
ing of human nature and a desire to improve human nature 
by careful and enlightened modification. It derived from the 
arbitrary will of God: God had given a few simple commands 
for behavior, and they were to be obeyed simply and literally. 
The theology employed by the 17th century church in New 


England modified original Calvinism in certain important re- 
spects; the most important being with reference to the signs of 
election. The importance of the mystical experience was mini- 
mized; in its place was encouraged the belief that a man might 
know himself one of the elect when he decided to enter the 
church and conform to its principles. The doctrine of predesti- 
nation was not altered by this belief, for the decision, apparently 
an act of the private will, had been predestined. 

Every human act thus became a sign in an allegory, as did 
every event in nature. If a man sinned, it was fairly obvious 
that he was an evil man and one of the damned, in spite of the 
theoretic but negligible possibility that he might be predestined 
to a later repentance and ultimate salvation. The most insignifi- 
cant events were predetermined by God in accordance with His 
eternal plan: by a cast of the dice one might discover God's will, 
for the fall of the dice was predestined; though it is hard in these 
later days to understand why confirmed predcstinarians should 
ever have required the intervention of the dice, when they had 
renounced with abhorrence the intervention of the Ghurch of 

Further, until the time of Andros, the church ruled the state; 
and it was not until the charter of 1692 that there was any real 
relaxation of the theory that the church had a right to do so, 
and the relaxation, when it came, was merely the slow beginning 
of a long process. The result was the fixing of certain social and 
mental habits, stronger, in all probability, than any others which 
have ever permeated a society at all its levels. Morality was 
strong, simple, and arbitrary; and under the influence of the 
doctrine of predestination, it transformed the human mind into 
an allegorical machine. One can open the diary of Cotton 
Mather almost at random and verify this assertion: people en 
countered casually on the street, the vicissitudes of private ex- 
perience, a dog urinating # a wall, were signs which Mather 
read for their divine meaning. And one can verify the assertion 
in innumerable minor documents of the time. This allegorism 
was not a literary movement or device, such as one meets among 
the neo-Platonists in various periods; nor was it the property of 

an academic class, like the medieval realism which expressed it- 
self in a somewhat less allegorical allegory than that of the Puri- 
tans, for example in that of Dante; nor was it a pedagogic device 
for instructing the illiterate, such as one meets at the lower levels 
of medieval literature, doubtless as a result of the influence of 
the realists; it was a form of the mind in daily life, a way of seeing 
the universe, which appears to have been common to an entire 
society, and it persisted well into the nineteenth century, after 
the ideas which had given rise to it had long since passed away. 
The works of Hawthorne, Melville, Henry James, and Henry 
Adams are its belated fruits in literature; in fact the diary of 
Cotton Mather and the Education of Henry Adams offer one 
of the most curious cases of similar temperaments that one is 
ever likely to find in two literary periods so far apart. 

By the end of the 17th century, New England Calvinism 
was disintegrating, especially along the Massachusetts seaboard; 
and about 1733 there began in the parish of Jonathan Edwards 
a revival of Calvinism, which, under the, influence of several 
powerful, though but vaguely Calvinistical field-preachers, was 
to sweep New England within the next few years. The excite- 
ment of this movement resulted in the breaking off of many small 
and strangely inspired sects from the main Calvinistic body; but 
it resulted also in the establishment of a revised and renewed 
Calvinism, under the guidance of Edwardian theology. 

Edwardian theology abandoned the early New England modi- 
fications of Calvinism; it taught an undisguised determinism and 
a purely mystical doctrine of Grace. New England mystical 
tendencies had by no means been suppressed by the earlier doc- 
trine: there had been doctrinal heretics, and even among the 
orthodox, such as Increase and Cotton Mather, there had been 
mystical trances, ecstasies, and visions, Cotton Mather, in fact, 
having been visited by an angel during one of the sunlit morn- 
ings of his youth. But Edwards revived and encouraged this 
tendency by explicit doctrine; and the New Englander's capacity 
for mystical belief and feeling was thus carried over to the period 
when Emerson should redescribe the mystical experience, em- 

ploying the ideas of Romantic pantheism recently imported from 
the literary movements of Europe, and as far as might be the 
language of Edwardian Calvinism, so that Romantic doctrine 
was offered in a language carrying most of the emotional im 
plications of the New England religious tradition in its most 
intense aspects. Mind and matter, God and Creation were one; 
the inundation of the mind by instinct and emotion was Divine 
Grace; and surrender to whim was surrender to the Spirit. Whit 
man restated this doctrine in a vulgar style, and increased its 
popularity; William James did much to give it academic re- 
spectability; and it reached its final and dramatic fulfillment in 
the life and work of Hart Crane. The mystical tradition would 
appear to have had little influence upon Adams at the beginning, 
but as we shall ultimately see, he drew very near to it in the 
later years of his life. 

But Edwards had little influence along the seaboard: the 
churches there continued their process of breaking down the 
17th cehtury theology which they had long since begun. The 
moral sense proved stronger than the belief in predestination, 
and with the disappearance of the doctrine of predestination 
went most of what was precise and strong in Calvinistic theol- 
ogy. Certainly the doctrine of predestination was the essential 
element in Calvinism; and when that went, theology was gone, 
for the ancient and habitual antagonism to Romanism, Angli 
canism and Arminianism remained when the doctrinal justifi- 
cation for it was dead: there were a few apostates to Anglican- 
ism, such as the American Samuel Johnson, but in general the 
New Englander was incapable even of thinking of a Christianity 
antecedent to Calvin. Whatever the intellectual troubles of the 
New Englander, he was the creature of the strongest habits that 
the world had ever seen. 

The result was Unitarianism. Among the Unitarian and re- 
lated churches of the early nineteenth century there was a good 
deal of variation in doctrine, but the tendency was toward a 
belief in a benevolent God, in place of the angry God of the 
fathers; in Christ as a moral teacher, and not as the son of God; 


in freedom of the will; in the complete efficaciousness of good 
works. And there was an increasing tendency toward disbelief 
in eternal damnation. Unitarianism placed man's responsibility 
for his acts and his salvation wholly within himself, but the 
acts of a well-bred man conformed almost inevitably to the strong 
customs of the society which had been generated by the earlier 
ideas; so that between the ease with which one might be moral 
and the gentlemanly attitude of God, salvation appeared a fairly 
simple matter. This period produced a type of mind which we 
may still observe in the poetry of Bryant, and in the prose of 
Prescott and of the first Charles Francis Adams: able, dignified, 
and at times distinguished; governed easily by firm convictions; 
uncritical of accepted principles; and tending to substitute gen- 
eral stereotypes for precise perceptions and ideas. Men of this 
type adopted easily and turned to their own purposes the literary 
style produced by English deism, a style composed of somewhat 
vaguely general ideas, of an easy and well-const k ructed period, 
and of the highly generalized statement which tended at its 
best toward the aphorism, at its weakest toward the clich. 
Thanatopsis is a sound poem and a serious and moving one; 
and rhetorically it is a masterpiece. But as compared even to so 
simple a piece as Herbert's Church Monuments, it displays a 
very simple and generalized grasp of its subject; and the same 
comments may be made upon Byrant's best work throughout 
To a Waterfowl, The Battlefield, The Grave, and The Tides. 

It was the Unitarians who provided the immediate back- 
ground of Henry Adams, and he described their mentality on 
many occasions, and always with bewilderment. In the history 
he writes: 4 

No more was heard of the Westminster doctrine that man had 
lost all ability of will to any spiritual good accompanying salvation, 
but was dead in sin. So strong was the reaction against old dogmas 
that for thirty years society seemed less likely to resume the ancient 
faith in the Christian Trinity, than to establish a new Trinity in 
which a deified humanity should have a place. Under the influence 

'History of the United States during the Administrations of Jefferson and 
Madison, by Henry Adams. Albert and Charles Boni, 1930. Vol. IX, pp. 182-3. 


of Channing and his friends, human nature was adorned with vir- 
tues hardly suspected before, and with hopes of perfection on earth 
altogether strange to theology. The Church then charmed. The 
worth of man became under Channing's teachings a source of pride 
and joy, with such insistence as to cause his hearers at last to recall, 
almost with a sense of relief, that the Saviour himself had been con- 
tent to regard them only as of more value than many sparrows. 

And a few lines below, he adds of the doctrine of Hosea 

This new doctrine, which took the name of Universalism, held 
as an article of faith "that there is one God, whose nature is love, 
revealed in one Lord Jesus Christ, by one Holy Spirit of Grace, who 
will finally restore the whole family of mankind to holiness and 
happiness/' In former times anyone who had publicly professed 
belief in universal salvation would not have been regarded as a 
Christian. . . . Yet the Universalists steadily grew in numbers and 
respectability, spreading from State to State under Ballou's guid- 
ance. . . . 

It is their bland security that most puzzles Adams, as it may 
well puzzle us today. In the Education he writes: 5 

Nothing quieted doubt so completely as the mental calm of the 
Unitarian clergy. In uniform excellence of life and character, moral 
and intellectual, the score of Unitarian clergymen about Boston, 
who controlled society and Harvard College, were never excelled. 
They proclaimed as their merit that they insisted on no doctrine, 
but taught, or tried to teach, the means of leading a virtuous, use- 
ful, unselfish life, which they held to be sufficient for salvation. For 
them difficulties might be ignored; doubts were waste of thought; 
nothing exacted solution. Boston had solved the universe; or had 
offered and realized the best solution yet tried. The problem was 
worked out. 

And in the History he quotes a passage from Channing which 
illustrates this view, and comments upon it: 6 

6 The Education of Henry Adams, by Henry Adams, Modern Library Edi- 
tion, p. 34. 
6 Op. cit. Vol. IX, pp. 181-2. 


"We lay it down as a great and indisputable opinion, clear as the 
sun at noon-day, that the great end for which Christian truth is re- 
vealed is the sanctification of the soul, the formation of the Chris- 
tian character; and wherever we see the marks of this character 
displayed in a professed disciple of Jesus, we hope and rejoice to 
hope, that he has received all the truth which is necessary to his 
salvation." The hope might help to soothe anxiety and distress, 
but it defied conclusions reached by the most anxious and often 
renewed labors of churchmen for eighteen hundred years. Some- 
thing more than a hope was necessary as the foundation of a faith. 

This was, however, the last step possible to a voluntaristic 
Christianity which should remain non-mystical. Dogmas were 
ignored as misleading and vicious; theology was so simplified 
that one could scarcely identify the God in whom one believed. 
But belief remained, and one's entire theory of human nature, 
or rather of human conduct, depended arbitrarily but historically 
and helplessly from that belief. As long as the belief remained, 
the spiritual result was a kind of placid security; but the New 
Englander retained his need for security, and wherever the be- 
lief departed and the evidence is still available for examination, 
we commonly find a kind of willed confusion and religious hor- 
ror, best represented in literature by Melville's Pierre and The 
Confidence Man and by the later work of Henry Adams. 

The strength of the voluntaristic tradition may be observed 
in a New Englander of our own period, the late Irving Babbitt. 
Babbitt found that human nature functioned at three levels, 
to use his own figure: the naturalistic, which was the level of 
the emotions and instincts, and which had been exploited by 
the writers of the Romantic movement; the humanistic, or criti- 
cal, at which we are able to examine the lower level, understand 
it, and control it; and the religious, which is above criticism. 
In his most valuable book, Rousseau and Romanticism, he de- 
votes himself primarily to the criticism of Romantic principles 
from what he calls a humanistic position, and he refers to him- 
self as an Aristotelian. The book is marred by his reference to 
the "Inner Check," or conscience, a feeling which functions at 


the religious level; but I believe that this element can be dis- 
sected out with no great damage to the criticism of the Romantic 

In his later work, however, his religious doctrines become 
more important, and in the book entitled On Being Creative, 
he asserts the absolute primacy of the will: man must will to 
submit his private will to the higher will, in which he must 
believe, and from that act understanding can follow; and the 
Inner Check, or Conscience, the feeling superior to reason and 
which guides us in emergencies, is identified with Divine Grace. 
This is Augustinism without the Christianity: we must believe 
in that which is superior to reason and which we therefore can- 
not define, much less examine critically; and in that which is 
divorced from any particular historical tradition such as that 
which still, I suppose, supports the belief of the Christian. And 
we have as our ultimate guide an emotional experience which 
is above rational criticism: the practical question therefore arises 
as to how we shall distinguish between an experience which is 
above criticism and one which is fairly subject to it, if we can- 
not bring criticism properly to bear on the first. Babbitt's final 
position seems to be little better than a starting point for a short- 
cut back to Emersonian mysticism. 

Babbitt believed the Inner Check to be a psychological fact, 
observable and therefore a fit beginning for discussion. But the 
question remains as to the exact nature of the fact. The feeling 
which is called conscience in Protestant and post-Protestant so- 
ciety is presumably real; but when Aquinas comes to define 
conscience, he identifies it with reason, and he discusses the 
moral consequences of the identification at great length. From 
a Thomistic position, there would always remain the possibility 
of divine intervention in a particular instance; but the Catholic 
Christian, whether Thomistic or other, would be protected 
against error by the supervision of the Church, a supervision 
which Babbitt did not enjoy: and this supervision is, in theory, 
the supervision of the disinterested reason. 

But Aquinas would be forced, I believe, by his definition 
of conscience and by his use of the Aristotelian doctrine of 

habit, to identify Babbitt's Inner Check in most of its individual 
occurrences as an habitual way of feeling about certain kinds of 
acts; the habit having been generated by training in a particular 
kind of society, which in turn had grown up originally in con- 
formity with certain kinds of ideas. There is nothing in Babbitt 
to make one relinquish this interpretation, or even to make one 
believe that he suspected the possibility of this interpretation; 
and if the interpretation is true, it follows, as various critics have 
suggested, that the Inner Check will become progressively 
weaker as the generating ideas tend less and less to acceptance 
and the society in consequence alters its nature. Babbitt's doc- 
trine of the Inner Check appears to be a late expression of the 
voluntaristic belief that morality is arbitrary and incomprehen- 
sible; the exact reverse of the Aristotelian doctrine, by which 
Babbitt appears to be mainly influenced in his early work, that 
morality is a fair subject for philosophical and psychological in- 
vestigation, and that its principles can be discovered in a large 
measure through the use of the natural reason in the study of 

I should like also to cite the instance of Henry James, for 
his connections with Adams are immediate and important. In 
my essay on James, 7 I have shown that the character in the 
Jamesian novel is guided by a moral sense, or habit, which, 
though very intense, has lost its connections with its origins, 
so that it is never adequately guided by any critical apparatus, 
and that a good deal of obscurity results directly from this situ- 
ation in many of the novels. The interesting thing about James 
as a critic is that he appears to be in precisely the same predica- 
ment as the characters in his novels. He objects to various con- 
tinental writers for their lack of moral sense, and he criticizes 
many of his own books for the obscurity of their motivation, 
an obscurity which, though he realizes the fact imperfectly, 
results from the confusion of his own moral sense; but when 
he discusses the general principles of fiction, 8 he derides the 

7 See page 300 of this volume. 

8 The references are to The Art of Fiction, in Partial Portraits. It is early, 
but characteristic. 


idea that morality has anything to do with fiction, yet he insists 
that fiction "must take itself seriously/' is obliged "really to 
represent life"; he takes it for granted "that some incidents are 
intrinsically much more important than others/' although a few 
lines further, he is willing to grant the artist any subject and 
judge him only by what he does with it. 

His terms, when he goes behind the terms relating to the 
technical structure of the novel, -are extremely confused; but 
he insists that the novel shall be interesting. And when we 
have read a great deal of his criticism, we discover that he means 
that it must be interesting to Henry James; and to discover the 
meaning of this interest, we must first come to understand Henry 
James, which we can best do through the study of his novels. 
Ultimately he demands that the novel display (in a very finished 
form, naturally) the particular moral sense, or feeling for human 
motivation, which he himself possesses. This moral sense is the 
product of New England and of a very special section of history; 
and it has lost all connection with its intellectual sources, merely 
existing, more and more precariously, in vacuo; but James as- 
sumes it to be, if not universal, at least a standard universally 
applicable, so that he is in about the same situation as the later 

Adams possessed the same moral sense, in a very exasperated 
form. He knew that he had it, and he knew that it closely re- 
sembled that of James; but unlike James, he felt that it needed 
justification, either philosophical or religious, and he convinced 
himself that neither was possible. Before proceeding to an ex- 
amination of Adams' thought and art, I wish to cite a few of 
his references to James, for they will illuminate a great deal of 
that which is to follow. 

In 1903 Adams wrote to James after reading James's life of 
Story: 9 

More than ever, after devouring your William Story, I feel how 
difficult a job was imposed on you. It is a tour de force, of course, 

9 Letters of Henry Adams 1 892-1 91 8, edited by W. C. Ford. Houghton 
Mifflin, 1938, p. 414. 


but that you knew from the first. Whether you have succeeded or 
not, I cannot say, because it all spreads itself out as though I had 
written it, and I feel where you are walking on firm ground, and 
where you are on thin ice, as though I were in your place. Verily 
I believe I wrote it. Except your specialty of style, it is me. 

The painful truth is that all of my New England generation, 
counting the half-century, 1820-1870, were in actual fact only one 
mind and nature; the individual was a facet of Boston. We knew 
each other to the last nervous center, and feared each other's knowl- 
edge. We looked through each other like microscopes. There was 
absolutely nothing in us that we did not understand merely by 
looking in the eye. 10 There was hardly a difference even in depth, 
for Harvard College and Unitarianism kept us all shallow. We 
knew nothing no! but really nothing! of the world. One cannot 
exaggerate the profundity of ignorance of Story in becoming a 
sculptor, or Stunner in becoming a Statesman, or Emerson in be- 
coming a philosopher. Story and Sumncr, Emerson and Alcott, 
Lowell and Longfellow, Ilillard, Winthrop, Motley, Prcseott, and 
all the rest, were the same mind, and so, poor worm! was I! 

Type bourgeois-boston ien! A type quite as good as another, but 
more uniform. What you say of Stow is at bottom exactly what 
you would say of Lowell, Motley, and Sumner, barring degrees 
of egotism. You cannot help smiling at them, but you smile at us 
all equally. God knows that we knew our want of knowledge! the 
self-distrust became introspection nervous self-consciousness irrita- 
ble dislike of America, and antipathy to Boston. Audi ich war in 
Arcadlen geborenl 

So you have written not Story's life, but your own and mine- 
pure autobiography the more keen for what is beneath, implied, 
intelligible only to me, and half a dozen other people still living; 
like Frank Boott: who knew our Boston, London, and Rome in 
the fifties and sixties. You make me curl up like a trodden-on 
worm. Improvised Europeans we were, and Lord God! how thin! 
No, but it is too cruel! Long ago, at least thirty years ago, I dis- 
covered it, and have painfully held my tongue about it. You strip 
us gently and kindly, like a surgeon, and I feel your knife in my 

10 It is amusing to compare this statement with the statement of Dallas Archer 
to his father, near the end of The Age of Innocence: "You never did ask each 
other anything, did you? And you never told each other anything. You just 
sat and watched each other, ana guessed at what was going on underneath. A 
deaf-and-dumb asylum, in fact! Well, I back your generation for knowing more 
about each other's thoughts than we ever have time to find out about our own." 


In 1901 he had written to Elizabeth Cameron: 11 

Harry James has upset me. John Hay has been greatly troubled 
by Harry's last volume, The Sacred Fount. He cannot resist the 
suspicion that it is very close on extravagance. His alarm made 
me read it, and I recognized at once that Harry and I had the 
same disease, the obsession of idee fixe. . . . 

In 1908 he wrote to William James of his own Education: 1 ' 2 

As for the volume, it interests me chiefly as a literary experi- 
ment, hitherto, as far as I know, never tried or never successful. 
Your brother Harry tries such experiments in literary art daily, 
and would know instantly what I mean; but I doubt whether 
a dozen people in America except architects or decorators would 
know or care. 

And in 1916, on learning of the death of this friend and alter- 
ego, he wrote to Elizabeth Cameron : 18 

Today the death of Harry James makes me feel the need of a 
let-up; I must speak to some one, and here I have no one Jamesian 
to talk to, except Wendell Holmes, and I never see him, for he is 
like me in avoiding contemporaries. Harry's death hits me harder 
than any stroke since my brother Charles' death a year ago. Not 
only was he a friend of mine for more than forty years, but he also 
belonged to the circle of my wife's set long before I knew him or 
her, and you know how I have clung to all that belonged to my 
wife. Swallow, sister! sweet sister swallow! indeed and indeed, we 
were really happy then. 


Adams' theory of history is really a philosophy and a theory 
of human nature; it is wholly indefensible and perverse, and 
we should be hard pressed to understand how a man of genius 
could conceive it if we had not some understanding of the history 

11 Letters of Henry Adams, op. cit., p. 333. 
"Ibid. p. 490. 
"Ibid. p. 638. 


which is largely responsible for his state of mind. Briefly, he 
possessed the acute moral sense of New England to which 1 
have already referred and the New Englander's need to read 
the significance of every event which he saw. But he was of the 
Ockhamist tradition; and as for the Mathers, so for him, the 
significance could not reside within the event but must reside 
back of it. He would scarcely have put it this way, and he might 
have denied the paternity of Ockham; but he belonged to a 
moral tradition which had taken its morality wholly on faith 
for so long that it had lost the particular kind of intelligence and 
perception necessary to read the universe for what it is; and had 
developed instead a passion to read the universe for what it 
means, as a system of divine shorthand or hieroglyphic, as a 
statement of ultimate intentions. 

He had no faith, however, and hence he could not believe 
that there was anything back of the event: the event was merely 
isolated and impenetrable. Yet he possessed the kind of mind 
which drove him to read every event with a kind of allegorical 
precision; and since every event was isolated and impenetrable, 
he read in each new event the meaning that the universe is 
meaningless. Meaning had been a function of faith; and faith 
had been faith not only in God and his decalogue but in a 
complete cosmology and chronology, that is, in all of Revela- 
tion; and if any part of this system was injured, every part was 
destroyed. The discoveries of geologists and astronomers caused 
him indescribable suffering and made it utterly impossible that 
he should examine dispassionately the moral nature of man. 

I shall deal later with Adams' view of the Middle Ages, thus 
reversing his chronology. He saw the twentieth century as an 
age of multiplicity or chaos, in which man was forced to recog- 
nize the confusion of his own understanding; the twentieth 
century was thus a falling away from the late twelfth century, 
in which man had enjoyed the illusion of a unified mind, so- 
ciety, and cosmology. 

It is simplest, perhaps, to begin with his way of looking at 
human character; and that particular topic immediately indi- 

cates something of his relationship to James. In the Education 
he wrote: 14 

Henry James had not yet taught the world to read a volume for 
the pleasure of seeing the lights of his burning-glass turned on 
alternate sides of the same figure. 

I have shown in writing of James, how the Jamesian burning- 
glass thus employed resulted very commonly in the reader's 
being left with two or more versions of both character and 
action and with no way of making any selection; how it re- 
sulted, briefly, in an ambiguity which might in certain novels 
amount to a perfect opacity. It is a question, as a rule, to what 
extent James realized and intended this opacity, to what extent 
he may have succeeded in mystifying himself as well as his 
reader, but so far as Adams is concerned, such opacity is a 
virtue, for it renders the only perceptible truth in experience. 
Character after character in the Education is described as in- 
comprehensible; Adams appears to make the discovery in each 
instance as if it were cause for astonishment; but eventually 
one notes that the discovery with regard to nearly every person 
encountered is inevitable, that it proceeds from a fixed habit of 
mind and results in a literary mannerism. Of Garibaldi he 
wrote: 15 

Adams had the chance to look this sphinx in the eyes, and, for 
five minutes, to watch him like a wild animal, at the moment of 
his greatest achievement and most splendid action. One saw a quiet- 
featured, quiet-voiced man in a red flannel shirt; absolutely imper- 
vious; a type of which Adams knew nothing. Sympathetic it was, 
and one felt that it was simple; one suspected even that it might 
be childlike, but could form no guess of its intelligence. In his own 
eyes Gariboldi might be a Napoleon or a Spartacus; in the eyes of 
Cavour he might become a Condottiere; in the eyes of history he 
might, like the rest of the world, be only the vigorous player in 
the game he did not understand. The student was none the wiser. 

This compound nature of patriot and pirate had illumined Italian 

4 Op. cit., p. 163. 
'Ibid., pp. 94-5. 


history from the beginning, and was no more intelligible to itself 
than to a young American who had no experience in double natures. 
In the end, if the "Autobiography" tells truth, Garibaldi saw and 
said that he did not understand his own acts; that he had been an 
instrument; that he had served the purposes of the class he least 
wanted to help; yet in 1860 he thought himself the revolution 
anarchic, Napoleonic, and his ambition was unbounded. What 
should a young Bostonian have made of a character like this, in- 
ternally alive with childlike fancies, and externally, quiet, simple, 
and almost innocent; uttering with apparent conviction the usual 
commonplaces of popular politics that all politicians use as the small 
change of their intercourse with the public; but never betraying a 

Precisely this class of mind was to be the toughest problem of 
Adams's practical life, but he could never make anything of it. The 
lesson of Garibaldi, as education, seemed to teach the extreme com- 
plexity of extreme simplicity; but one could have learned this from 
a glow-worm. One did not need the recollection of the low-voiced, 
simple-mannered seafaring captain of Genoese adventurers and Sicil- 
ian brigands, supping in the July heat and Sicilian dirt and revolu- 
tionary clamor, among the barricaded streets of insurgent Palermo, 
merely in order to remember that simplicity is complex. 

One might at first consideration decide that Garibaldi was 
incomprehensible to Adams merely because he was an extremely 
foreign type; but Adams was convinced that Garibaldi could 
understand nothing of himself; and Adams could do no better 
with Seward, who was surely a native American product: 1 


A slouching, slender figure; a head like a wise macaw; a beaked 
nose; shaggy eyebrows; unorderly hair and clothes; hoarse voice; 
offhand manner; free talk and perpetual cigar, offered a new type 
of western New York to fathom; a type in one way simple be- 
cause it was only double political and personal; but complex be- 
cause the political had become nature, and no one could tell which 
was the mask and which was the features. At table, among friends, 
Mr. Seward threw off restraint, or seemed to throw it off, in reality, 
while in the world he threw it off, like a politician, for effect. In 
both cases, he chose to appear as a free talker, who loathed pomposity 
and enjoyed a joke; but how much was nature and how much was 
mask, he was himself too simple a nature to know. 

10 Ibid. p. 104. 


And if one is to trust the testimony of the chapter entitled 
Eccentricity, he found the entire English nation so impenetrably 
obscure that they provided him with material for little save 
satirical bewilderment. 

And he found the same obscurity in events, whether major 
or minor: 17 

That Sumner and Hoare, the two New Englanders in great posi- 
tion who happened to be the two persons most necessary for his 
success at Washington, should be the first victims of Grant's lax rule, 
must have had some meaning for Adams's education, if Adams could 
only have understood what it was. He studied, but failed. 

And since he was sure of the impossibility of understanding 
anything, he was sure above all of the impossibility of under- 
standing his function as a teacher at Harvard: 18 

He never knew whether his colleagues shared his doubts about 
their own utility. Unlike himself, they knew more or less their 
business.. He could not tell his scholars that history glowed with 
social virtue; the professor of Chemistry cared not a chemical atom 
whether society was virtuous or not. Adams could not pretend that 
medieval society proved evolution; the Professor of Physics smiled 
at evolution. Adams was glad to dwell on the virtues of the Church 
and the triumphs of its art: the Professor of Political Economy had 
to treat them as a waste of force. They knew what they had to teach; 
he did not. They might perhaps be frauds without knowing it; but 
he knew certainly nothing else of himself. He could teach his 
students nothing; he was only educating himself at their cost. 

The mere sequence of these quotations should indicate the 
extent to which this state of mind had become a mechanical 
affair, habitual and unquestioned. The passages in question are 
not quoted from passages of argument which clarify them in 
the text; they are essentially as unexplained in the original text 
as in that of the present essay. Nowhere does Adams, for ex- 
ample, so much as look at the reasons traditionally offered for 
teaching history, to say nothing of trying to find any new ones; 

17 Ibid. p. 279. 

18 Ibid. p. 306. 


he merely asserts that it is fraudulent to pretend to teach history. 
Nowhere does he examine the validity of the view of art at- 
tributed to the Professor of Economics; he merely opposes it to 
his own interest in art, as if by virtue of its existence it were 
indiscutable. One feels that if he had gone to the zoo, he would 
have returned in all philosophical seriousness with the report: 
"I saw a giraffe: but the farmer beside me denied the existence 
of such an animal/* His discussion never gets very far beyond 
this kind of statement. 

He finds the problem of judging works of art equally in- 
comprehensible, and in the chapter of the Education entitled 
Dilettantism, he tells a story which is supposed to demonstrate 
his thesis. He tells of going to an auction and buying a drawing, 
which F. T. Palgrave had recommended to him as surely by 
Rafael and as having a good deal of intrinsic excellence. After 
buying the drawing, he submitted it to various other experts 
and found them in wide disagreement as to its authenticity 
and as to its virtues. The moral is, that one cannot form any 
valid judgments about a work of art. 

The story is amusingly told, and makes excellent gossip, but 
the purpose to which it is put betrays an almost childish men- 
tality. The sketch was, in the first place, a working draft of a 
fragment of a picture, probably clone in a moment and the next 
day discarded. It was not a finished work of art, and the im- 
possibility of identifying the workmanship to a certainty would 
be manifest. Further, the question of authorship and the ques- 
tion of excellence are quite distinct from each other. Adams' 
discovery that two critics can disagree about the value 4 of a 
work of art let us assume that we have a finished work is 
surely nothing to astonish us. We may assume that a given 
masterpiece let us say Macbeth has a certain absolute value 
and perhaps certain real flaws as well, and that critics will differ 
in their approximation of a true judgment of the work in pro- 
portion to their own imperfections of native ability, education, 
and capacity for effort; or we may assume that every man's 
judgment is right for himself, and that all judgments are rela- 
tive, as Adams repeatedly states. The first theory will account 


for the persistence of great reputations as well as for difference 
of opinion; the second will offer an alternative explanation for 
difference of opinion but for nothing more. Throughout Mont 
Saint-Michel and Chartres he insists that the judgment of art 
is wholly relative, at the same time that the insistence causes 
him deep regret. He prefers the older tower of Chartres cathedral 
to the later, and as far as one can judge from the photographs 
the preference is certainly sound; but he cannot defend the 
preference. He apologizes, and says that after all the later tower 
was better for the people who made it and may be better for his 
reader: a position which is defensible, needless to say, only if 
one is willing to push it to its unmistakable conclusion, and 
assert that the latest roadside horror is better for its builders 
than either tower and may be better for the reader. There is 
no defensible compromise in this matter between a thorough 
relativism and a thorough absolutism. 

Adams appears to have felt that modern science had destroyed 
the last possibility of human understanding, and his later writ- 
ing is largely the record of an effort to bring scientific ideas to 
bear upon his problem. He found, first, that modern science 
made for confusion; and later he tried to find in scientific prin- 
ciples an exact formulation of the reasons why we are moving 
into greater confusion and of the rate of movement. 

He sought in the findings of the 19th century geologists and 
in the theories of Darwin a new cosmology, to replace the old 
cosmology which these findings and others had destroyed. His 
discussion of his geological and evolutionary adventures is as 
amusing as his account of the investigation of the drawing; but 
it is incoherent, an assertion and exhibition of confusion, rather 
than explanation of it; and it is notable mainly for the anguish 
underlying the wit. In this department of his experience, as 
in others, his frustrated passion for precise understanding drove 
him toward the dogmatic certainty, to be achieved at any sacri- 
fice of rationality, that no understanding of any kind was pos- 
sible: 19 

19 Ibid., p. 225 

He was ready to become anything but quiet. As though the world 
had not been enough upset in his time, he was eager to see it upset 
more. He had his wish, but he lost his hold on the results by trying 
to understand them. 

His method, in general, is to leap nervously into the midst 
of a science of which he has no particular knowledge and worry 
a few details with a kind of irritated persistence: 20 

Objections fatal to one mind are futile to another, and as far as 
concerned the article, the matter ended there, although the glacial 
epoch remained a misty region in the young man's Darwinism. Had 
it been the only one, he would not have fretted about it; but uniform- 
ity often worked queerly and sometimes did not work as Natural 
Selection at all. Finding himself at a loss for some single figure to 
illustrate the Law of Natural Selection, Adams asked Sir Charles 
for the simplest case of uniformity on record. Much to his surprise 
Sir Charles told him that certain forms, like Terebratula, appeared 
to be identical from the beginning to the end of geological time. 
Since this was altogether too much uniformity and much too little 
selection, Adams gave up the attempt to begin at the beginning and 
tried starting at the end himself. Taking for granted that the verte- 
brates would serve his purpose, he asked Sir Charles to introduce 
him to the first vertebrate. Infinitely to his bewilderment, Sir Charles 
informed him that the first vertebrate was a very respectable fish, 
among the earliest of all fossils, which had lived, and whose bones 
were still reposing, under /Adams' own favorite Abbey on Wenlock 
Edge . . . Pteraspis, a cousin of the sturgeon, and whose kingdom, 
according to Sir Roderick Murchison, was called Siluria. Life began 
and ended there. Behind that horizon lay only the Cambrian, with- 
out vertebrates or any other organism except a few shell-fish. On the 
further verge of the Cambrian rose the crystalline rocks from which 
every trace of organic existence had been erased. 

Now whatever the virtues or defects of the doctrine of Natural 
Selection, Lyell's statement regarding Terebratula would scarcely 
damage it; an elementary knowledge of biology is sufficient to 
give a theoretic explanation of such a phenomenon. And when 
Adams was in search of his earliest vertebrate ancestor, and was 

20 Ibid., p. 227. 


assuming that one would be shown to him, there was no particu- 
lar justification for his being infinitely bewildered when a par- 
ticular ancestor was indicated. Nor was there cause for astonish- 
ment in the ancestor's being a fish; for the fish are the lowest 
vertebrates. Nor is a cousin to a sturgeon a perfectly respectable 
fish, for the sturgeon is one of the most primitive fishes surviving. 
Nor is there cause for astonishment in the fact that the next 
age preceding, the Cambrian, offered nothing more advanced 
than shell-fish; for the shell fish, Mollusca and Arthropoda, 
represent the two phyla most highly developed before the chor- 
dates. I know little of the history of geology and biology, but 
most of this perfectly elementary information was probably 
available to Adams at the time of his original bewilderment and 
was unquestionably available to him at the time of his writing 
the Education. His procedure is to be witty rather than intelli- 
gent, and, having established a state of confusion for the sake 
of the wit, to deduce his spiritual suffering from it: that is the 
literary process; the original psychological process is less simple, 
as I have shown. The result is a certain iridescence of emotional 
surface but precisely nothing of sanity. The bewilderment is 
imposed on the experience, arbitrarily and at every point. What 
we get is not a philosophical experience, but an emotional ex- 
perience: a vision of chaos which is cosmological, chronological, 
and theological. 

He draws from this experience the only moral possible to 
a man in such a condition, the moral that truth is indeciphera- 
ble: 21 

As he lay on Wenlock Edge, with the sheep nibbling the grass 
close about him as they or their betters had nibbled the grass or 
whatever was there to nibble in the Silurian kingdom of Pteraspis, 
he seemed to have fallen on an evolution far more wonderful than 
that of the fishes. He did not like it; he could not account for it; 
and he determined to stop it. Never since the day of his Limulus 
ancestry had any of his ascendants thought thus. Their modes of 
thought might be many, but their thought was one. Out of his mil- 

21 Ibid., pp. 231-2. 

lions of millions of ancestors, back to the Cambrian mollusks, every 
one had probably lived and died in the illusion of Truths which did 
not amuse him, and which had never changed. Henry Adams was 
the first in an infinite series to discover and admit to himself that he 
really did not care whether truth was, or was not, true. He did not 
even care that it should be proved true, unless the process were new 
and amusing. He was a Darwinian for fun. 

From the beginning of history, this attitude had been branded 
as criminal worse than crime sacrilege! Society punished it fero- 
ciously and justly, in self-defense. Mr. Adams the father looked on 
it as moral weakness; it annoyed him; but it did not annoy him nearly 
so much as it annoyed his son, who had no need to learn from 
Hamlet the fatal effect of the pale cast of thought on enterprise great 
or small. 

Adams, in brief, did not care for truth, unless it was amus- 
ing; for he was a modern nihilist, and hence a hedonist or 
nothing. But his predicament nevertheless annoyed him, for it 
frustrated action, just as it did for Melville's Pierre, and Adams 
was a New Englander, to whom action and the comprehension 
of his action were constitutionally necessary. The entire per- 
versity, the inconsequence, and the tragedy of Adams' predica- 
ment are indicated in this passage. And the Pteraspis, elevated 
in this manner into a symbol, remains one throughout the rest 
of the book: 22 

I listory is a tangled skein that one may take up at any point, and 
break when one has unravelled enough; but complexity precedes 
evolution. The pteraspis grins horribly from the closed entrance. 

The Pteraspis appears to Adams to grin horribly precisely 
because the entrance is closed, or because Adams thinks it 
closed. Adams is not content, even provisionally, to study his 
world as it is, in the hope of arriving at a working knowledge 
of it; there is no knowledge, for Adams, unless it is a part of 
a complete system, deriving from an acceptable definition of the 
Absolute: 23 

22 Ibid., p. 302. 
* Ibid., p. 226. 


Ignorance must always begin at the beginning. Adams must in- 
evitably have begun by asking Sir Isaac for an intelligible reason 
why the apple fell to the ground. He did not know enough to be 
satisfied with the fact. The Law of Gravitation was so-and-so, but 
what was Gravitation? and he would have been thrown quite off 
his base if Sir Isaac had answered that he did not know. 

This neurotic and childish impatience, amounting almost to 
insolence, is the final fruit of the Christian doctrine in New 
England; the patience and humility of an Aristotle or a New- 
ton are incomprehensible. 

This state of mind grew on him with the years. It is obvious 
above all in his comments upon his later discovery of twentieth 
century psychology: 24 

Unfortunately, the pursuit of ignorance in silence had, by this 
time, led the weary pilgrim into such mountains of ignorance that 
he could no longer see any path whatever, and could not even under- 
stand a signpost . . . Me gathered from the books that the psychol- 
ogists had, in a few cases, distinguished several personalities in the 
same mind, each conscious and constant, individual and exclusive 
... To his mind, the compound ^Ftr/ii took at once the form of a 
bicycle rider, mechanically balancing himself by inhibiting all his 
inferior personalities, and sure to fall into the sub-conscious chaos 
below, if one of his inferior personalities got on top. The only ab- 
solute truth was the sub-conscious chaos below, which everyone 
could feel when he sought it. 

Whether the psychologists admitted it or not, mattered little to 
the student who, by the law of his profession, was engaged in study- 
ing his own mind. On him, the effect was surprising. He woke up 
with a shudder as though he had himself fallen off his bicycle. If 
his mind were really this sort of magnet, mechanically dispersing 
its lines of force when it went to sleep, and mechanically orienting 
them when it woke up which was normal, the dispersion or the 
orientation? The mind, like the body, kept its unity unless it hap- 
pened to lose its balance, and the professor of physics, who slipped 
on a pavement and hurt himself, knew no more than an idiot what 
knocked him down, though he did know what the idiot could 
hardly do that his normal condition was idiocy, or want of bal- 
ance, and that his sanity was unstable artifice. His normal thought 
was dispersion, sleep, dream, inconsequence; the simultaneous action 

"Ibid., pp. 433-4-5. 


of different thought centers without central control. His artificial 
balance was acquired habit. He was an acrobat with a dwarf on 
his back, crossing a chasm on a slack-rope, and commonly breaking 
his neck. 

By that path of newest science, one saw no unity ahead nothing 
but a dissolving mind. 

One should note, here, the emotional quality of much of the 
language; the feeling is that of the romantic tradition. The bi- 
cycle rider balances himself "mechanically" (that is, by a base 
and contemptible trick); his balance is "artificial" (the artifi- 
cial and the mechanical are roughly equivalent in romantic 
thought); and the balance is acquired "habit" (habit, in ro- 
mantic terminology, does not refer to a psychological fact, but 
to a spiritual vice: habit is mechanical and imperceptive be- 
havior). The balance keeps the rider safe from his inferior 
personalities and from the chaos, and one might deduce from 
this that the balance is valuable; but this is not true, for since 
the balance is artificial, and there is really a chaos, the chaos 
is the only absolute truth, and, one guesses, one might as well 
immerse oneself in it as soon as possible. 

I do not know how foolish it may seem to many of my readers 
for me to state my objections to these ideas more explicitly still, 
but my acquaintance with the minds of my literary contempo- 
raries is extensive, and I am sure that many of them derive an 
important part of their thought from Adams, though many of 
them do not know it; and to my great regret I have found that 
many of the most brilliant of them understand simple matters 
only with the greatest of difficulty. 

I should therefore like to add my belief that a balance which 
is artificial, or which is, in my terms, a habit formed by willed 
perseverance deriving from rational understanding of the need 
for it, and which preserves one from madness, is in its own 
nature a good; for madness is in its own nature and quite ob- 
viously an evil. A morality which preserves one from this loss 
of balance is defensible beyond argument by virtue simply of 
the fact that it so preserves one; and a morality such as that of 
Adams is evil, simply by virtue of the fact that it aims at loss 


of balance. One does not need Divine Revelation to know this; 
a single look at a psychopathic ward is sufficient. And once one 
has admitted the initial advantage of being sane, one will be 
forced to admit the additional advantages of being as sane, or 
as intelligent as possible; and a good deal of careful scrutiny 
may enable us to refine a very little upon the rough scheme of 
our initial morality. If one is conscious when awake and semi 
conscious when asleep, it is fair to assume that both conditions 
are normal at their proper times and to refrain from introducing 
mysteries into a universe which already contains two or three 
problems which no human ingenuity has been able to solve. 

Adams appears to point ahead to such writers as Pound, Joyce, 
and Eliot, in this passage; to those who have found the dissolving 
mind the normal mind, and who have sought to exploit it at the 
expense of the other. He gives the impression here that he 
would explore this mind because there is nothing else to do; 
but in a few other places he indicates a belief, whether temporary 
or permanent, that the passive mind is the best medium for 
reaching truth: that is, he approximates a statement of Emer- 
sonian or Bergsonian mysticism. 

In telling of his early life, he discusses his youthful con- 
templation of the Concord faith with some amusement: 25 

He never reached Concord, and to Concord Church he, like the 
rest of mankind who accepted a material universe, remained always 
an insect, or something much lower a man. 

Yet he tells how a little later he came to understand Bee- 
thoven 26 by listening to him passively and inattentively in a 
German music hall, and he appears to draw the moral that this 
was the best way to arrive at an understanding. And in one of 
the last chapters, in discussing the development of modern 
science, he writes 27 an extensive passage which is purely Emer- 
sonian, not only in its irrationality and its mysticism, but in its 
very vocabulary as well: 

*Ibid., p. 63. 
30 Ibid., p. 80. 
27 Ibid. p. 485. 


Very slowly the accretion of these new forces, chemical and me- 
chanical, grew in volume until they acquired sufficient mass to take 
the place of the old religious science, substituting their attraction 
for the attractions of the Civitas Dei, but the process remained the 
same. Nature, not mind, did the work that the sun does on the 
planets. Man depended more and more absolutely on forces other 
than his own, and on instruments which superseded his senses. 
Bacon foretold it: "Neither the naked hand nor the understanding, 
kit to itself, can effect much. It is by instruments and helps that 
the work is done." Once done, the mind resumed its illusion, and 
society forgot its impotence; but no one better than Bacon knew 
its tricks, and for his true followers science always meant self- 
restraint, obedience, sensitiveness to impulse from without. "Non 
fingendum aut excogitandum sed inveniendum quid Natura facial 
aut ferat." 

The success of this method staggers belief, and even today can 
be treated by history only as a miracle of growth, like the sports of 
nature. Evidently a new kind of mind had appeared. Certain men 
merely held out their hands like Newton, watched an apple; like 
Franklin, flew a kite; like Watt played with a tea-kettle and great 
forces of nature stuck to them as if she were playing ball. 

The foolishness of this passage is obvious, but I hesitate to 
leave it undefined. The actions of Newton, Franklin, and Watt 
bore fruit, I suspect, because of previous thought which illumi- 
nated the particular adventures. Franklin, in fact, or so I seem to 
remember it, was flying a kite to verify a theory; he was not 
merely flying it for fun. The rapid advance of science in the past 
two centuries is due to the accumulation of knowledge and the 
improvement of machinery. The more one knows, the more 
rapidly one can learn; and the better one's instruments, the better 
the instruments one can make. The process is cumulative and not 
in itself mysterious. Bacon was scarcely the prophet of modern 
science that he is popularly supposed to have been, and had small 
comprehension of the best scientific thought of his day; but his 
two statements are harmless enough, the first being a recognition 
of the need of instruments, the second a recognition of the exist- 
ence of objective truth. 

Explicit statements of this kind are rare and fleeting in the 
Education, and it is possible that I over-estimate the importance 


of this fringe of Adams' thought; for certainly it did little to miti- 
gate the desolation of spirit of his later years. He was not an 
enthusiast, as was Emerson, and he found in this doctrine no dis- 
cernible trace of Emersonian beatitude. But in 1909 he wrote in 
a letter to Margaret Chanler: 28 

I like best Bergson's frank surrender to the superiority of Instinct 
over Intellect. You know how I have preached that principle, and 
how I have studied the facts of it. In fact I once wrote a whole 
volume called my Education which no one ever saw, and which 
you must some day look into, borrow William James's copy, in 
hopes that he may have marginally noted his contempt for me, in 
order to recall how Education may be shown to consist in following 
the intuitions of Instinct. Loeb calls it Tropism, I believe; which 
means that a mother likes to nurse her own child. 

If he came as late as 1909 to feel, however, that in the Edu- 
cation he had discovered a way of life, there is small evidence 
of such feeling in the book itself, or elsewhere in his writing, 
before or "after. Nothing was comprehensible; each event and 
fact was unique and impenetrable; the universe was a chaos of 
meaningless and unrelated data, equivalent to each other in value 
because there was no way of evaluating anything. Comprehen- 
sion, judgment, and choice being nullified, there was no reason 
for action, physical or spiritual, and life was mere stagnation: 29 

The outlook lacked hope. The object of travel had become more 
and more dim, ever since the gibbering ghost of the Civil Law had 
been locked in the dark closet as far back as 1860. Noah's dove had 
not searched the earth for resting-places so carefully, or with so little 
success. Any spot on land or water satisfies a dove who wants and 
finds rest; but no perch suits a dove of sixty years old, alone and 
uneducated, who has lost his taste even for olives. To this, also, the 
young may be driven, as education, and the lesson fails in humor; 
but it may be worth knowing to some of them that the planet offers 
hardly a dozen places where an elderly man can pass a week alone 
without ennui, and none at all where he can pass a year. 

9 Letters of Henry Adams, op. cit., p. 524. 
9 Education, op. cit., p. 357. 


In his old age, he joined his only political party, the Con- 
servative Christian Anarchists, a party of which the only other 
member was his young friend Bay Lodge. His last letters, in their 
despair, malice, and frantic triviality are very painful reading. 

I have been tracing the disintegration of a mind. Yet the moral 
sense persisted, strong as ever, but running amuck for lack of 
guidance. Adams, as I have shown, was as passionate an allegorist 
as Mather had been; instead of seeing God's meaning in every 
event, he saw the meaninglessness of a godless universe, but with 
a Calvinistic intensity of vision. He had, as he confessed in writ- 
ing of Henry James the "obsession of idee fixe/' And not only had 
he the passion to see his allegorical vision, but he had the true Cal- 
vinist's passion to provide his vision with his own theology. He 
wrote: 30 

From cradle to grave this problem of running order through chaos, 
direction through space, discipline through freedom, unity through 
multiplicity, has always been, and must always be, the task of edu- 

Yet the problem, though one was bound to endeavor to solve 
it, could never be solved in fact: the solution must be a delu- 
sion: 31 

Chaos was the law of nature; Order was the dream of man. 

More than once he thought he saw his solution in permitting 
himself, as T. S. Eliot would have us do, to be determined by 
what he took to be his time, by what in fact was casual impulse: 32 

To him, the current of his time was to be his current, lead where 
it might ... he insisted on maintaining his absolute standards; on 
aiming at ultimate Unity. 

This Emersonian disguise of his own disintegration, however, 
was something that he could not consistently maintain: his dis- 


P . 12. 

81 Ibid., p. 451. 

82 Ibid., p. 232. 

integration was not a voyage, governed by absolute standards, on 
a supernatural current in the direction of Unity; it was merely 
disintegration. And the only way to find Order in it, was to dis 
cover the reason for the disintegration and chart its rate. 

He was too good a determinist and too devoutly sorry for him- 
self to seek any part of the reason in himself, and partly because 
of these facts, and partly because he was committed to an obscur- 
antistic view of history, he failed to seek it in any segment of his- 
tory definite and limited enough to imply that the difficulty was 
due to human error that might in some measure be corrected. 
Like a true Calvinist and a true determinist, he turned at once, 
for his answer, to the Nature of the Universe, and sought to 
show that the whole universe, as a single mechanism, was run- 
ning down. The cosmological scope of the doctrine appears most 
fully in the volume of essays posthumously published as The 
Degradation of the Democratic Dogma; but in Mont Saint- 
Michel and Chartres and in the Education he seeks to illustrate 
the tendency by defining the difference between two extremes of 
civilization: 33 

Any schoolboy could see that man as a force must be measured 
by motion, from a fixed point. Psychology helped here by suggest- 
ing a unit the point of history when man held the highest idea of 
himself in a unified universe. Eight or ten years of study had led 
Adams to think he might use the century 1150-1250, expressed in 
Amiens cathedral and the Works of Thomas Aquinas, as the unit 
from which he might measure motion down to his own time, with- 
out assuming anything as true or untrue, except relation. The move- 
ment might be studied at once in philosophy and mechanics. Setting 
himself to the task, he began a volume which he mentally knew as 
Mont Saint-Michel and Chartres: A Study of Thirteenth Century 
Unity. From that point he proposed to fix a position for himself 
which he could label: The Education of Henry Adams: A Study of 
Twentieth Century Multiplicity. With the help of these two points 
of relation, he hoped to project his lines forward and backward in- 
definitely, subject to correction from anyone who should know better. 

We have seen the manner in which Adams demonstrated 
twentieth century multiplicity; and as I have already said, it 

88 Ibid., p. 435. 

seems to me pointless to invent difficulties in a universe in which 
irreduceable difficulties flourish. The philosophical problem, as I 
see it, is to define the various possible mysteries, and where 
choice is possible, to choose those which eliminate the greatest 
possible number of the remainder; and to keep as scientific, as 
Aristotelian, an eye as possible upon the conditions of our life as 
we actually find ourselves forced to live it, so that we may not 
make the mistake of choosing a mystery which shall, in propor- 
tion as it influences our actions, violate those conditions and lead 
to disaster. For example, a strictly deterministic philosophy, 
whether materialistic or pantheistic, and no matter how enticing 
the cosmology or theology from which it may derive, can lead 
only toward automatism in action, and automatism is madness. 
And similarly, a strictly nominalistic view of the universe can 
lead only to the confusion and paralysis reached by Adams; 
whereas a certain amount of understanding, small no doubt in 
the eye of God and of the philosopher, but very useful in itself, is 
actually possible. If we find that a theory violates our nature, we 
have then learned something about our nature; and we have 
learned that there is something wrong with the theory. When 
Dr. Johnson demonstrated the real existence of the wall by kick- 
ing it, he employed a philosophical argument far from subtle but 
absolutely unanswerable. The philosopher who needs further 
convincing may try driving his car against the wall, and at as 
high a rate of speed as he may feel the ingenuity of his philosophy 
to require: he may, in this manner, learn something of the nature 
of absolute truth. Adams quotes Poincar6 84 as saying that it is 
meaningless to ask whether Euclidean geometry is true, but that 
it will remain more convenient than its rivals. I am no mathe 
matician and can only guess what this means; but I surmise that 
it means that a bridge built by Euclidean geometry may con- 
ceivably stand, whereas one built by a rival system will certainly 
fall. If this is true, I should be willing to accept the fact as per- 
haps a Divine Revelation regarding the nature of the physical 
universe and as a strong recommendation for the study of Eu- 
clidean geometry. 

"Ibid., p. 455. 


Some such intention as I have just recommended would appear 
to have motivated Aristotle and even Aquinas. I myself am not a 
Christian and I fear that I lack permanently the capacity to be- 
come one; but Aquinas's examination of the nature of man 
appears to me acute and extremely usable, and his disposition 
of theological difficulties perhaps the best disposition possible. 
Adams, however, is bent on proving the existence of a unified 
mind in the 13th century, because he is bent on proving that man 
has disintegrated since, and his discussion of Aquinas centers 
wholly in the theological difficulties, for he assumes that the 
philosophy derives from the theological solutions, whereas in 
reality the philosophy and the philosophical method derive very 
largely from Aristotle, who was a scientific observer and analyst 
and neither a Christian nor a theologian. And since the theo- 
logical difficulties were real, and since the answers of Aquinas are 
less satisfactory to Adams than they must have been to Aquinas, 
Adams asserts that the entire structure, philosophy as well as 
theology, depends from faith, and "if Faith fails, Heaven is lost." 
And as^*we have seen, when Adams says that Heaven is lost, he 
means that everything is lost. 

The unity which Adams finds, therefore, in the 13th century 
is a unity of faith, which results, he seems to believe, in a unity 
of social and artistic purpose. He is aware of the diversity of phil- 
osophical views, but he does not take it seriously, for philosophy 
is not a serious matter while there is faith, if indeed it can be 
shown to be a serious matter at all. Yet the controversy over uni- 
versals was essentially a controversy over the very existence of the 
rational faculty itself: had there been no Aquinas to slow the 
spread of nominalism, to steady the thought of the period with a 
little of that rarest form of profundity curiously called common 
sense, it seems highly improbable that the Church as we know it 
could long have survived, for the Church rests solidly on a 
recognition, whether explicit or implicit, of the reality of ideas; 
Faith without intellectual unity can scarcely maintain its own 
unity or any other for long, as the history of the Reformation 
seems to indicate. Within the Church itself there was a diversity 
of views on fundamental subjects, a diversity of the most perilous 


kind; and the unity of the 13th century Church, in so far as it 
was achieved, was due far less to the spirit of the age than to the 
mind of Thomas Aquinas. 

And to what extent can one fairly say that the Church pro- 
vided religious unity for Europe as a whole? As one proceeded 
downward from the great doctors of the Church, through various 
intellectual and social levels, the religion became simpler and 
simpler, and ultimately more and more pagan. If even a small 
part of the conclusions of the folk-lorists of the past fifty years can 
be trusted, the Stone Age persisted as a solid sub-stratum but a 
little below the surface of Christianity. The great Church of the 
thirteenth century, as we know it in its literary and artistic re- 
mains, was the product of a relatively small class, and of a class 
confined to the centers of culture. Behind the cities lay isolated 
and small communities, living on the land, and encountering the 
outside world for the most part only as they were devastated by 
war. The last great period of the Stone Age, a period of consider- 
able artistic development and of wide and persistent religious 
beliefs, had lasted perhaps twenty thousand years, and had 
formed the peasant mind, which is tenacious, whereas Christian- 
ity in most of Europe was a matter of a very few hundred years. 
One can learn something of the extent to which most of the popu- 
lation must have been isolated from the civilization of the time by 
reading the first six chapters of Adams' own history, or by reading 
the third chapter of Macaulay. The life of the thirteenth century 
peasant was probably as primitive in every respect as had been 
the life of his ancestors in the caves and about the lakes, and was 
probably more fraught with peril and less provided with animal 

Of political unity there was little. Between the death of Charle- 
magne and the rise of the centralized monarchies of the Renais- 
sance the system was feudal, which is to say chaotic, irrespon- 
sible, and brutal. In what sense can the mass of the feudal lords 
be called Christian? They called themselves Christian, but their 
Christianity was that neither of Christ nor of any doctor of the 
Church. Of the entire class perhaps Richard of England is as 
high a representative as any, and his ideals were not Christian 


but chivalric; they were vainglorious and merciless, although 
heroic in their way and impressive in retrospect. The great liter- 
ary expression of this group of men is the Song of Roland, a beau- 
tiful poem, which Adams praises because of its strong simplicity 
and directness, qualities which he associates rightly with the 
chivalric ideal; but these qualities are the result less of a masterly 
understanding of human nature than of the exclusion from con- 
sideration of most of what is important in human nature. Even 
George Herbert is a greater poet than Turoldus, as he is a wiser 
and more civilized man. 

And if Richard and Turoldus came close to realizing even this 
simple ideal, it is wise to remember that few others did so. The 
medieval baron or prince was in general brutal and unscrupulous; 
to compare the great industrialists of our own period to these their 
predecessors is a very harsh judgment, I suspect, in spite of the 
crimes of our period. Part of our dissatisfaction with our time is 
due to one of the few really valuable heirlooms left us by the 
Romantic movement, our sense of social responsibility. We see 
the injustices and misfortunes suffered by the poor; we feel that 
much can and should be done to mitigate them, and although we 
have done a great deal, we feel that we have not done enough, 
for we see the evils remaining and are embittered. That we have 
done a good deal, however, anyone may discover by a moderately 
attentive reading of such writers as Chaucer, Defoe, and Dick- 
ens. Dickens was a reformer, and so may be suspected of over- 
drawing his picture, but Defoe and Chaucer merely depicted 
what they saw, with pity, but with no indignation; and if we may 
trust them, and others like them, the life of most of the lower 
classes on the land and in the cities equally, and perhaps well 
into the nineteenth century, beyond all argument in the middle 
ages and in the Renaissance, was far more terrible than that of 
any considerable number of persons in North America or in 
Western Europe during the twentieth century, even at the lowest 
ebbs of our social and economic life. 

I do not ignore the wars of the twentieth century when I say 
this, and having had no personal experience of them, I may be 
foolish to speak of them. But if my literaty contemporaries would 


read a few full and leisurely histories, such as those, for example, 
of Motley, which deal with the wars of the Renaissance or with 
the wars of the Middle Ages, they might suspect that wars are not 
much worse than they were: what our ancestors lacked in equip- 
ment they made up in thoroughness, and the long protraction of 
the wars probably caused a suffering greater in proportion to the 
population of those times than any caused by the wars of our day. 
In fact the mere figures relating to the increase of population dur- 
ing the past century and a half are proof in themselves that the 
basic hardships of life have decreased beyond our imagining. 

I do not wish to give the impression that I believe our civili- 
zation is perfect. We do not enjoy a high degree of civilization, 
and I believe that probably we never shall; the race is not capable 
of it. But Adams' view of the Middle Ages, which has been 
adopted by Eliot and his followers, is merely a version of the 
Romantic Golden Age; the thirteenth century as they see it never 
existed, and their conviction that major intellectual and spiritual 
achievement is possible only in such a Utopia can do nothing 
but paralyze human effort. Much of the unity and simple strength 
which Adams so admires in the thirteenth century was merely 
the result of callous indifference to horrors worse than any the 
twentieth century has ever known. I have the greatest of respect 
for the mind of Aquinas, and but little, I fear, for many of the 
most influential minds of the twentieth century; but I respect- 
fully submit that had Aquinas felt himself determined by the 
stupidity and confusion of his time, he would probably have 
accomplished very little. He endeavored to learn as much as pos- 
sible from the best minds of his time and of the two thousand 
years, more or less, preceding; and having learned that, he set 
out to do the best that he could with it. Adams arrived at his view 
of the middle ages by concentrating on a few great products of 
literature, thought, and architecture; ignoring everything else, he 
asserted that these were the thirteenth century. He arrived at his 
view of the twentieth century by reversing the process. He thus 
deduced that the world was deteriorating, and so found a justi- 
fication for his own state of mind. 


The Cosmology which expands Adams' view of history to its 
ultimate generality is to be found in The Degradation of the 
Democratic Dogma. The essays were written during the latter 
part of Adams' life. In his letters he frequently refers to them as 
jokes, perpetrated to stir up his slow-witted colleagues; but he also 
refers to them seriously, and there is every reason to believe that 
he took them seriously. They merely enlarge upon the theory 
which we have been examining, and which is stated more briefly 
in the latter part of the Education; and although they are suffi- 
ciently astonishing in their irrationality, I do not know that they 
are much worse in this respect than the two books thus far con- 

The most important of these essays is A Letter to American 
Teachers of History. It begins with the unquestioning acceptance 
of two theological principles, both the product of the age which 
he is endeavoring to prove to be one of ultimate confusion: the 
Law of the Dissipation of Energy, and the assumption that man 
is governed by physical laws. Whether we regard Adams as the 
contemner of his own age, or as the apostle ot scepticism, this 
acceptance is sufficiently startling. It can be understood only if 
we remember that he was the heir of the Puritans and that sooner 
or later his heritage was certain to overtake him completely. In 
order to prove the impossibility of absolute truth, he had to start 
from absolute truth and create what he could believe for the mo- 
ment to be a comprehensive system. 

The Revelation discloses that Energy is being dissipated 
steadily in a godless universe: the origin of Energy in a godless 
universe, and the question of how this process, which must end 
in time, has had no temporal beginning, but has been undergoing 
a steady process of diminution from all eternity these difficulties 
are never met. The end is certain; the beginning does not matter. 
The principle explains why heat ends in cold, life in death, 
motion in 'station. And the principle once established, it follows 
that each succeeding manifestation of energy is inferior to the 
last. Man is thus inferior to the early animals, and civilization is 
a process of decay. The emergence of human reason during this 
process does not trouble Adams in the least: Reason, as we have 


seen, leads only to confusion and inaction and is of no help in the 
attainment of truth; this in spite of the fact that Adams probably 
believed that he was using his own reason in arriving at the 
truths which he elucidates. Reason is a degraded form of will: 35 

Reason can be only another phase of the energy earlier known 
as Instinct or Intuition; and if this be admitted as the stem-history 
of* the Mind as far back as the eocene lemur, it must be admitted 
for all forms of Vital Energy back to the vegetables and perhaps 
even to the crystals. In the absence of any definite break in the 
series, all must be endowed with energy equivalent to will. . . . 
Already the anthropologists have admitted man to be specialized 
beyond hope of further variation, so that, as an energy, he must 
be treated as a weakened Will an enfeebled vitality a degraded 
potential. He cannot himself deny that his highest Will-power, 
whether individual or social, must have proved itself by his high- 
est variation, which was incontrovertibly his act of transforming him- 
self from a hypothetical eocene lemur, whatever such a creature 
may have been, into men speaking elaborately inflected language. 
This staggering but self-evident certainty requires many phases of 
weakening Will-power to intervene in the process of subsidence into 
the reflective, hesitating, relatively passive stage called Reason; so 
that in the end, if the biologists insist on imposing their law on the 
anthropologists, while at the same time refusing to admit a break 
in the series, the historian will have to define his profession as the 
science of human degradation. 

We thus see that life has proceeded from the energetic form 
of the rock crystal, to the passive and listless form which it mani- 
fests, for example, in the United States in the twentieth century; 
and since this process is proven a process of degradation, the 
emergence of the human mind with its various complex creations, 
is necessarily a symptom of degeneration. Human Reason can 
scarcely go farther, or so one might think for a moment. But 
actually there is one further deduction, and Adams makes it in 
the course of the essay. Life has deteriorated from the energetic 
form of the rock crystal, through all the forms of vegetation, of 
animal life, and of civilization, the highest form of civilization 

36 The Degradation of the Democratic Dogma, by Henry Adams, Mac- 
millan, 1919, pp. 192-5. 


having existed in the thirteenth century; and the energy of the 
universe must continue to dissipate itself until life will be re- 
duced again to rock-crystals. This is an unbroken process of de- 
terioration; and it provides the cosmological frame for Adams' 
theory of history. 

Man's deterioration thus becomes a matter of cosmology, of 
Revealed Truth, and there is no help for the matter. The best 
thing man can do is trust his instincts, for they are worth more 
than his reason, and they will guide him infallibly along the cur- 
rent of his time to progressively more complex degeneracy. Art 
is a human function, and will be governed by the general law. 
Art also is deteriorating, but it must deteriorate to express honestly 
the general deterioration of man; and we thus arrive at one of the 
central ideas of T. S. Eliot, which has been one of the most influ- 
ential of the past twenty years, at least among the more scholarly 
and intellectual of our poets and critics. At the end of Mont 
Saint-Michel and Chartres we find the matter stated in Adams' 
own words: 36 

Art had to be confused in order to express confusion; but perhaps 
it was truest so. 

If the chaos of the subconscious is the only reality, and if the 
subject-matter of art determines the form of the work, then we 
have arrived at Finnegans Wake and the poetry of Pound and 
Eliot as the finest expression of civilization, that is to say, of de- 
generacy, although in some way which almost eludes me, we 
have left that other product of degeneracy, the Reason, a little 
way behind us in arriving at our goal. 


I have dealt very harshly with the later work of Adams; I have 
stated my opinion that this work represents the radical disintegra- 
tion of a mind. The mind, however, had been a great one, though 
its true greatness is suspected only by professional historians at 

* Mont Saint-Michel and Chartres, by Henry Adams, Houghton Mifflin, 
p. 375. 


the present time and is little more than suspected by most of 
them. Of the early work, the novels and the life of Randolph are 
trivial; but the life of Gallatin is still regarded by historians as one 
of the great works in American biography, and although it is long 
and heavily documented, and is very different from the bird's-eye 
views of biography which have been so popular during the past 
ten or fifteen years, it is a massive and distinguished work of liter- 
ature. It has never gone into a second edition, I believe, and is 
very hard to obtain. 

Lack of space forbids that I write of more than the history. The 
History of the United States During the Administrations of 
Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, 37 a work in nine volumes, 
has been reissued only once to my own inexpert knowledge; it is 
now out of print. All things considered, I suspect that it is the 
greatest historical work in English, with the probable exception 
of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, although any 
such judgment by one who is not an expert scholar in a number 
of historical fields, as well as something of a critic of literature, 
must be very tentative. 

The relationship of literary quality to historical scholarship in 
a work of this kind perhaps needs to be briefly considered. The 
historian such as Gibbon or Macaulay, one is inclined to suppose, 
examines his material to the best of his ability, and on the basis 
of that examination forms a fairly definite idea of the characters 
and actions involved. In this stage of his work, he is comparable 
to the novelist who has long meditated his characters and out- 
lined his plot. The final literary form of the history represents an 
evaluation, a moral judgment, of the material which he has held 
in his mind. Such judgment is inevitable, even though the his- 
torian refrain completely from any didacticism: it resides in the 
very act of writing, and no historian, be he a good stylist or a bad, 
can escape it. The difference in this respect between a good stylist 
and a bad is merely that the good stylist knows what he is doing, 
and if he is a conscientious man, both as a scholar and as a stylist, 

37 The latest edition, the one in my possession, and the only one I have seen, 
was published by Albert and Charles Boni in 1930. It is a great misfortune that 
the work is not available in some such edition as The Modern Library or The 
World's Classics. 


can take every possible precaution to make his judgment sound; 
whereas the scholar who suffers from the delusion that he can be 
perfectly impersonal runs the risk at least of being uncritical of 
his style, that is of the ultimate and definitive boundary of his 
judgments. Professor Andrews, I believe, has expressed the theory 
that the historian should have no style; but by the Grace of God, 
or through God's just retribution, he has achieved the finest his- 
torical style with which I am acquainted this side of Adams the 
average scholar is likely to be less fortunate unless he is guided by 
a more admirable doctrine. 

The professional research scholar tends to distrust the historian 
of literary pretensions, such as Motley or Macaulay. The danger, 
apparently, is that such an historian runs the risk of devoting 
more attention to the second function which I have mentioned 
than to the first, and thus of creating something closer to his- 
torical fiction than to history. The danger, of course, is real, and 
the accusation has been levelled repeatedly at Gibbon, Macaulay, 
Motley, and Parkman, yet all survive; and the amateur such as 
myself cannot but wonder whether much of the criticism is not 
due merely to the fact that these writers have survived and have 
remained so long the objects of careful reading. That they are 
guilty of many sins I am sure, and that they suffer from the state 
of scholarship in their respective times or from the vicissitudes 
of their private lives is more than likely; but that they are guilty 
of more errors in proportion to their achievement than are many 
scholars of no great literary pretensions strikes me as much less 
certain, especially on those occasions when I have just put in a 
few hours reading what various scholars have written of each 
other. Certainly there is something to be said for the theory that 
the history of civilization can best be recounted by a man who is 
himself a distinguished product of civilization and who is there- 
fore in a position to understand in some measure what civilization 
really is. 

After examining the work of Adams' later years, one might 
expect him to be the greatest sinner of all in this particular man- 
ner, yet I should not be surprised to discover that he is the least; 
I have at any rate encountered fewer accusations against him 

than against the others, although this may be merely the result 
of his being the latest in time and the least subjected to scrutiny. 
He gives the impression of adhering very closely to his docu- 
ments, and of judging them carefully and with a watchful atten- 
tion to the possibility of his being prejudiced. If there is a con- 
stant prejudice in his history, in any wise comparable to the 
political bias of Hume or of Macaulay, it is a distrust of demo- 
cratic procedure, a distrust which was to reach a state of violent 
exasperation in his later years. His fascination with confusion is 
already apparent, although in the history it is restrained; on the 
other hand, the confusion in the American government during 
the period which he treats was assuredly real, and it would be 
hard to convict him of over-emphasis or of drawing unwarranted 

In order to understand the literary achievement of this work, 
one needs, I think, to consider a few of the greatest historians in 
English preceding Adams: Hume, Robertson, Gibbon, Macau- 
lay, Prescott, Motley, and Parkman will suffice. 

Modern historiography in English may probably be said to 
begin with Hume's History of England, though it might well 
begin with Bacon's Henry VII, except for the gap in time be- 
tween that work and the next important efforts. By modern stand- 
ards, Hume was far from being a careful scholar, but his prose is 
remarkable both for its virtues and its defects: Hume adapted the 
style of eighteenth century prose at its best to the purposes of his- 
toriography, and he imposed that style so successfully upon his- 
toriographical tradition that its influence persisted longer in 
history than in any other field of literature. The virtues of the 
prose are its precision, its structure, and its dignity. Hume, in 
common with the best stylists of his century, possessed a com- 
mand of the rhetorical possibilities of grammatical structure 
which diminished notably among the great writers of the century 
following. Accumulation, climax, antithesis, the ironical by- 
thrust; the exact identification of causal, temporal and other re- 
lations by means of grammatical form; perfect clarity at every 
moment in the process of difficult stylistic maneuvers; variety and 
precision of rhythm: such mastery is the norm of his style; he 

4 1 ? 

takes it for granted, as a concert pianist takes for granted the ath- 
letic proficiency of his fingers. Such a style is necessarily formal, 
and scarcely lends itself, except in the guise of the mock heroic, 
to the familiar narrative of the fictionist: it tends naturally toward 
the expository form and the ironic comment, and, in narrative, 
toward the heroic. 

Hume's very defects as a scholar assisted him in utilizing the 
possibilities of this style to the utmost. 38 His scholarship was so 
deficient that he seems to have been largely unaware of geo- 
graphical, climatic, racial, religious and other influences on his- 
tory. He saw man as essentially the same in all times and places, 
and as a perfectly free and unhampered agent, though in certain 
times and places guilty of incomprehensible stupidity. The his- 
tory of nations thus became political history purely and simply, 
and largely a history of individual men; and individual action 
was to be understood wholly in moral terms. Any man or action 
who could not be approved by the enlightened standards of the 
mid-eighteenth century, was judged immediately and without 
recourse -to the study of social or other historical influences, and 
thus condemned, or more than likely ridiculed. History was seen 
in two dimensions, and that which appeared out of focus was 
merely a proper subject for satire. The result is an heroic style 
greatly tempered with formal irony. It is a style of great beauty, 
and in dealing with certain subjects probably comes very close to 
the truth; but in the main it provides a simplification of its mate- 
rial so extreme that is principal value today resides in its impact 
on later historians. 

Hume's style displays another mark of the eighteenth century, 
more specifically of the literary tradition affected directly or in- 
directly by deism. 39 The curious self-righteousness, mild but im- 
movable, the security that all problems had been solved and that 
all were really very simple, which we meet in the thought of 
Shaftesbury and his followers, and which they seem to have im- 
posed upon the attitudes of most of the writers of the generation 

38 Much of what follows on Hume, Robertson, and Gibbon is based on the 
essays of J. B. Black, The Art of History, Methuen, London, 1926. 

89 This subject is discussed a little more fully in my essay on Stevens in the 
present volume. 


or so following, had as one of its most obvious results the kind of 
stylistic stereotype which we have come to consider as more or 
less characteristic of eighteenth century style: a stereotype both 
general and genteel, and commonly sentimental in its tendency, 
and which is used as a regular substitute for exact rendering of 
the material under discussion. J. B. Black points out a tendency 
in the work of Hume's contemporary, Robertson, which may do 
something to increase the inclination to this vice in Gibbon and 
in his disciple, Prescott: a concern for the dignity of history, 
which makes it imperative to eliminate the detail taken from 
vulgar but vivid reality; to eliminate, for example, the king's 
dagger left sticking in the body of Rizzio, which Robertson found 
in his original document. 

The effect of these men on the monumental genius of Gibbon 
was very real, or at least the resemblance is real. The style has 
developed into something that one is tempted to call a prose 
equivalent of Milton's verse, but it is not that, for it is softer, 
smoother, and less uncompromising: but it is rich, complex, and 
massive, and like Milton's verse appears at times to be restricted 
in its perceptions by its very grandeur: Black quotes Bagehot's 
complaint that Gibbon cannot say Asia minor. Perhaps the fol- 
lowing passage will suffice as well as any other to indicate the 
manner in which Gibbon is frequently constrained by the very 
nature of his instrument. It is from the portrait of Theodora, and 
I take the liberty of using my own italics: 

The beauty of Theodora was the subject of more flattering praise 
and the source of more exquisite delight. Her features were delicate 
and regular; her complexion, though somewhat pale, was tinged with 
a natural color; every sensation was instantly expressed by the vivac- 
ity of her eyes; her easy motions displayed the graces of a small hut 
elegant figure; and either love or adulation might proclaim that paint- 
ing and poetry were incapable of delineating the matchless excel- 
lence of her form. But this form was degraded hy the facility with 
which it was exposed to the public eye and prostituted to licentious 
desire. Her venal charms were abandoned to a promiscuous crowd of 
citizens and strangers . . . The satirical historian has not blushed 
to describe the naked scenes which Theodora was not ashamed to 
exhibit in the theatre. After exhausting the arts of sensual pleasure, 


she most ungratefully murmured against the parsimony of Nature; 
but her murmurs, her pleasures, and her arts must be veiled in the 
obscurity of a learned language. 

The subject of this passage is a prostitute who became em- 
press. The historian's embarrassment is extreme, but the em- 
barrassment is probably as much as anything stylistic and prac- 
tical. The normal tone of his prose, the entire state of mind estab- 
lished by it, forbids his dealing with this material with much 
greater precision. 

Prescott, like Gibbon, chose, for his two most famous histories, 
themes which in themselves possess extraordinary grandeur. 
They have not the chronological and geographical sweep of the 
theme of Gibbon, nor are they as important in the development 
of western civilization; but what they lack in these respects they 
make up by their strangeness, and the fall of an empire such as 
that of the Incas, of a civilization such as that of the Mexicans, is 
sufficiently impressive. The cadence, whether of sentence, of 
paragraph*, or of narrative, is similar to that of Gibbon; the 
scholarship, within the more limited field, is probably as com- 
petent, though on this subject I can merely hazard a guess; the 
style displays a similar quality of polite imperception, of deca- 
dence, and more consistently and obviously, at the same time that 
it is in spite of this defect beautifully controlled and almost in- 
variably interesting. There may be a greater awareness on the 
part of Prescott than on that of Gibbon, who in this respect is 
closer, though not extremely close, to Hume, of the necessity of 
laboring to understand the minds of people of remote times and 
cultures. This may account in part for the complete lack of irony 
in Prescott, although the lack is no doubt more largely due to a 
lack of perception of another kind, to a kind of provincial caution, 
placidity, and decorum. Prescott lacks the range and cultivation 
of Gibbon's mind, and his prose represents a gentle deterioration 
of that of his master. When in his last history, he endeavored, 
apparently, to clear his prose of its floridity and magniloquence, 
he merely retreated, with no appreciable advantage, toward the 

kind of prose one can find in the average textbook, as a com- 
parison with parallel passages in Motley will easily show. 

If style were a more or less independent organism, living, 
maturing and dying according to its own principles, this should 
have been the end of the grand manner of writing history; but 
the manner was revived and in certain respects very brilliantly 
revised, by Macaulay and Motley. 

Macaulay is a master of the long sentence, but he tends to 
shorten its units and hasten its movement; and he deliberately 
employs the short sentence to achieve flexibility and variation. 
The prose remains heroic, but has ceased to be grandiloquent; 
the stereotyped phrase is rare; there is no difficulty in rendering 
the dagger left sticking in the body or the dungheaps beneath the 
windows of the country gentlemen. These few lines from the 
account of the execution of Monmouth represent a revolution in 
the practice of historical prose: 

The head sank down once more. The stroke was repeated again 
and again; but still the neck was not severed, and the body continued 
to move. Yells of rage and horror rose from the crowd. Ketch flung 
down the axe with a curse. "I cannot do it," he said; "my heart fails 
me." "Take up the axe, man," said the sheriff. "Fling him over the 
rails," roared the mob. Two more blows extinguished the last re- 
mains of life; but a knife was used to separate the head from the 

This is near the end of one of the greatest pieces of narrative 
in Macaulay's history, and indeed in English literature, the ac- 
count of Monmouth's rebellion. The men, the country, the mud, 
the weather, as well as the blood and disaster, are rendered unfor- 
gettably, and this 'passage is followed immediately by the magnifi- 
cent meditation on Monmouth's burial, a meditation worthy of 
Shakespeare. But no detail damages the prose. The prose is quick 
as well as intricate. It changes pace rapidly, and moves easily 
from subject to subject, but it never loses its identity. Whatever 
Macaulay's defects as an historical scholar and he resembles most 
scholars in this, that his errors appear to have been many and 
serious his contribution to the development of historical prose 


was one of the greatest. Motley's virtues are similar and perhaps 
not greatly inferior, although there is a stronger trace in Motley 
of the heroic stereotype. 

Parkman has similar virtues at his best, but even to the end 
of his career the opportunity of describing a forest scene will 
demoralize him completely and reduce his style to a cold delirium 
of academic pseudo-poeticism. And the hardships of his private 
life, his engrossing and exhausting struggle with blindness, 
insanity, rheumatism, arthritis and perhaps other disorders, al- 
though one cannot but admire him for his strength of character 
in dealing with them, unquestionably limited both his scholar- 
ship and his understanding to the point where he is relatively a 
minor figure. He was forced to concentrate on the immediate 
data of his subject: he knew to perfection what the priests had 
done in the wilderness, but his understanding of the religious 
mind was that of Hume; he knew how the Iroquois and the 
Hurons appeared to the priest and how they behaved in war, but 
he knew nothing of anthropology and seems not to have con- 
sidered even the lessons to be drawn from Prescott's treatment of 
the civilized tribes. The Indian and priest in juxtaposition, and 
in certain kinds of action, as seen from without by a man of heroic 
temperament and limited understanding, he could depict to per- 
fection. He was at his best in dealing with the simple military 
man or adventurer, whose qualities he was easily able to com- 

But to the best of my knowledge, Parkman is the last distin- 
guished historian of the heroic line. 40 Adams introduces a new 
style and an entirely new conception of historiography. The 
Adams who wrote the history was in the full possession of his 
intellectual powers, but he was the same Adams who was to de- 
teriorate in the particular manner which we have seen. He was 
not heroic, and he did not see men as heroic, or at least he did not 
see those as heroic who were close to him in time and civilization. 
But he had a curiosity about psychological motives and action 
comparable to that of Henry James; his gift was for high comedy. 

40 1 am simply taking it for granted that my reader feels, as I do, that the 
less said about Carlyle the better. 


Gibbon chose for his subject the decline and fall of the Roman 
Empire; and the other historians whom I have mentioned did 
their best to rival this selection among the subjects remaining to 
them. The subjects were all essentially epic. Adams chose as his 
subject a period of sixteen years in the history of a nation which 
was, at the period which he examined, of about the same im- 
portance as Ecuador or Bolivia in the world of today; and which 
was, at the time of his writing, in spite of its astonishing growth, 
in a period of economic, political, and moral confusion which 
may well have made its future seem doubtful. But it was Adams' 
own country, and his forbears had helped to make it; so the sub- 
ject was serious. Yet although it was a subject which called for 
serious investigation, it could scarcely hope for better than dis- 
interested examination from Adams: if comedy was inherent in 
the subject, then comedy would certainly result in the literary 

I have already spoken of Adams' admiration for James's treat- 
ment of character; I have quoted Adams on the "pleasure of see- 
ing the lights of his burning glass turned on alternate sides of the 
same figure." He was fascinated with the manner in which the 
Jamesian character tends to shift and dissolve and assume new 
aspects under scrutiny, and he was conscious that he possessed 
the same kind of sensibility. And his central figure, Thomas 
Jefferson, probably lent itself better to representation by a man of 
Adams' talents than any other major American statesman would 
have done. 

The history opens with six chapters of analysis of general con- 
ditions, and the last volume closes with a similar analysis. The 
narrative proper begins with the seventh chapter, which gives a 
picture of Jefferson's inauguration and an introductory portrait 
of each of the main figures in the administration, a portrait which 
is brief, mainly physical, and skillfully suggestive. His final sum- 
mary of Jefferson's appearance and mannerisms is as follows: 41 

For eight years, this tall, loosely built, somewhat stiff figure, in 
red waistcoat and yarn stockings, slippers down at the heel, and 

41 Op. cit., Vol. I, p. 187. 


clothes that seemed too small for him, may be imagined as Senator 
Maclay described him, sitting on one hip, with one shoulder high 
above the other, talking almost without ceasing to his visitors at the 
White House. His skin was thin, peeling from his face on exposure 
to the sun, and giving it a tettered appearance. This sandy face, 
with hazel eyes and sunny aspect; this loose shackling person; this 
rambling and often brilliant conversation, belonged to the controlling 
influences of American history, more necessary to the story than 
three fourths of the official papers, which only hid the truth. 

And later, when the narrative has progressed sufficiently for 
the statement to be comprehensible, he writes: 42 

The contradictions in Jefferson's character have always rendered 
it a fascinating study. Excepting his rival, Alexander Hamilton, no 
American has been the object of estimates so widely differing and 
so difficult to reconcile. Almost every other American statesman 
might be described in a parenthesis. A few broad strokes of the 
brush would paint the portraits of all the early Presidents with this 
exception, and a few more strokes would answer for any member 
of theircabinets; but Jefferson could be painted only touch by touch, 
with a fine pencil, and the perfection of the likeness depended upon 
the shifting and uncertain flicker of its semi-transparent shadows. 

To attempt a summary or description of his method of depict- 
ing this character would be useless, for he does it only in render- 
ing fully and cautiously the manner in which Jefferson dealt 
with the many confusing situations encountered in his position; 
but one can illustrate it on a very small scale by quoting complete 
his account of a minor incident, the Callender scandal: 43 

James Thompson Callender, a Scotch adventurer compared with 
whom the Cobbetts, Duanes, Cheethams, and Woods who infested 
the press were men of moral and pure life, had been an ally of Jeffer- 
son during the stormy days of 1798, and had published at Richmond 
a volume called "The Prospect before Us," which was sufficiently 
libellous to draw upon him a State prosecution, and a fine and some 
months imprisonment at the rough hands of Judge Chase. A few 
years later the Republicans would have applauded the sentence, and 

"Ibid., p. 277. 

43 Ibid., pp. 322 to 327. 


regretted only its lightness. In 1800 they were bound to make com- 
mon cause with the victim. When Jefferson became President, he 
pardoned Callender, and by a stretch of authority returned to him the 
amount of his fine. Naturally Callender expected reward. He has- 
tened to Washington, and was referred to Madison. He said that he 
was in love, and hinted that to win the object of his affections noth- 
ing less than the post-office at Richmond was necessary for his social 
standing. Meeting with a positive refusal, he returned to Richmond 
in extreme anger, and became editor of a newspaper called "The 
Recorder," in which he began to wage against Jefferson a war of 
slander that Cobbett and Cheetham would have shrunk from. He 
collected every story he could gather, among overseers and scandal- 
mongers, about Jefferson's past life, charged him with having a 
family of negro children by a slave named Sally; with having been 
turned out of the house of a certain Major Walker for writing a 
secret love-letter to his wife; with having swindled his creditors by 
paying debts in worthless currency, and with having privately paid 
Callender himself to write 'The Prospect before Us," besides furnish- 
ing materials for the book. Disproof of these charges was impossible. 
That which concerned Black Sally, as she was called, seems to have 
rested on a confusion of persons which could not be cleared up; that 
relating to Mrs. Walker had a foundation of truth, although the 
parties were afterwards reconciled; that regarding the payment of 
debt was true in one sense, and false only in the sense which Cal- 
lender gave it; while that which referred to "The Prospect before Us" 
was true enough to be serious. All these charges were welcomed by 
the Federalist press, reprinted even in the New York "Evening Post," 
and scattered broadcast over New England. There men's minds 
were ready to welcome any tale of villainy that bore out their theory 
of Jefferson's character; and at the most critical moment, a mistake 
made by himself went far to confirm their prejudice. 

Jefferson's nature was feminine; he was more refined than many 
women in the delicacy of his private relations, and even men as 
shameless as Callender himself winced under attacks of such a sort. 
He was sensitive, affectionate, and, in his own eyes, heroic. He 
yearned for love and praise as no other great American ever did. 
He hated the clergy chiefly because he knew that from them he 
could expect neither love nor praise, perhaps not even forbearance. 
He had befriended Callender against his own better judgment, as 
every party leader befriended party hacks, not because the leaders 
approved them, but because they were necessary for the press. So 
far as license was concerned, "The Prospect before Us" was a mild 
libel, compared with Cobbett's, Coleman's, and Dennie's cataracts of 


abuse; and at the time it was written, Callender's character was not 
known and his habits were still decent. In return for kindness and 
encouragement, Callender attempted an act of dastardly assassination, 
which the whole Federalist press cheered. That a large part of the 
community, and the part socially uppermost, should believe this 
drunken ruffian, and should laugh while he bespattered their presi- 
dent with his filth, was a mortification which cut deep into Jefferson's 
heart. Hurt and angry, he felt that at bottom it was the old theo- 
logical hatred in Virginia and New England which sustained this 
mode of warfare; that as he had flung Paine at them, they were 
flinging Callender at him. 'With the aid of a lying renegade from 
Republicanism, the Federalists have opened their sluices of calumny," 
he wrote; and he would have done wisely to say no more. Unluckily 
for him, he undertook to contradict Callender's assertions. 

James Monroe was Governor of Virginia. Some weakness in 
Monroe's character caused him more than once to mix in scandals 
which he might better have left untouched. July 7, 1802, he wrote 
to the President, asking for the facts in regard to Jefferson's relations 
with Callender. The President's reply confessed the smart of his 

"I am really mortified at the base ingratitude of Callender. 
It presents human nature in a hideous form. It gives me concern 
because I perceive that relief which was afforded him on mere 
motives of charity, may be viewed under the aspect of employing 
him as a writer." 

He explained how he had pitied Callender, and repeatedly given 
him money. 

"As to myself," he continued, "no man wished more to see his 
pen stopped; but I considered him still as a proper object of 
benevolence. The succeeding year he again wanted money to 
buy paper for another volume. I made his letter, as before, the 
occasion of giving him another fifty dollars. He considers these as 
proofs of my approbation of his writings, when they were mere 
charities, yielded under a strong conviction that he was injuring 
us by his writings." 

Unfortunately, Jefferson could not find the press-copies of his 
letters to Callender, and let Monroe send out these apologies with- 
out stopping to compare them with his written words. No sooner had 
the Republican newspapers taken their tone from Monroe, and com- 
mitted themselves to these assertions of fact, than Callender printed 
the two letters which Jefferson had written to him, which proved that 
not only had Jefferson given him at different times some two hundred 
dollars, but had also supplied information, of a harmless nature, for 


"The Prospect before Us," and under an injunction of secrecy had 
encouraged Callender to write. His words were not to be explained 
away: "I thank you for the proof-sheets you enclosed me; such papers 
cannot fail to produce the best effect." 

No man who stood within the circle of the President's intimates 
could be perplexed to understand how this apparent self-contradic- 
tion might have occurred. Callender was neither the first nor the last 
to take advantage of what John Randolph called the "easy credulity" 
of Jefferson's temper. The nearest approach Jefferson could make 
toward checking an over-zealous friend was by shades of difference 
in the strength of his encouragement. To tell Callender that his book 
could not fail to produce the best effect was a way of hinting that it 
might do harm; and, however specious such an excuse might seem, 
this language was in his mind consistent with a secret wish that Cal- 
lender should not write. More than one such instance of this kindly 
prevarication, this dislike of whatever might seem harsh or disoblig- 
ing, could be found in Jefferson's correspondence. 

A man's enemies rarely invent specious theories of human nature 
in order to excuse what they prefer to look upon as falsehood and 
treason. July 17, 1803, Callender was drowned in some drunken 
debauch; but the Federalists never forgot his calumnies, or ceased 
ringing the changes on the President's self-contradictions, and 
throughout New England the trio of Jefferson, Paine and Callender 
were henceforth held in equal abhorrence. That this prejudice did 
not affect Jefferson's popular vote was true, but it seriously affected 
his social relations; and it annoyed and mortified him more than 
coarser men could understand, to feel in the midst of his utmost 
popularity that large numbers of his worthiest fellow-citizens, whose 
respect he knew himself to deserve, despised him as they did the 
vermin they trod upon. 

One has in this account the portrait of a man who cannot 
quite gauge himself or his motives, and who appears extremely 
ambiguous, perhaps, to many of his observers; but we have a por- 
trait of the man in action, a rich exhibition of his actions, feelings, 
and beliefs, no less rich than James could have exhibited in com- 
parable space, in spite of the fact that every detail in Adams' ac- 
count is firmly attached to an historical document. The exhibi- 
tion of Jefferson's character is not only witty, but is honest and 
perceptive as well; it was only in Adams' later years that his 
interest in this aspect of human nature was to degenerate into a 
shallow mannerism, as we have seen it in the Education. The 


early incidents exhibiting Jefferson's nature in minor situations, 
suggest the man as we shall find him in the larger plan of the 
total work, dealing with the major problems of statesmanship. 

Jefferson is obviously the character who most fascinates and 
amuses the historian; and Adams is fortunate that Jefferson's part 
was actually central. But he accepts his obligation as an historian 
with no qualms; he neither avoids adequate treatment of men of 
other types nor tries to remodel them. Burr, Jackson, Harrison, 
Tecumseh, Napoleon, Madison, Gallatin, and Barlow are only 
a few of the number portrayed at length: each one exists in his 
own right and is unforgettable. And each is portrayed as he 
should be portrayed by a careful historian: through his written 
words, or the written words of observers, and through his acts, 
one by one and in interrelation, each act taken carefully and curi- 
ously naked from the original document. Whether the subject 
is the maneuvering of Napoleon and the British ministry, 
whether it is the incidents leading to the death of Hamilton or 
those leading to the battle of Tippecanoe and the later death of 
that moderate and distinguished gentleman, Tecumseh, the story 
is clear and beautifully illuminated. All generalizations are made 
from the objective data actually presented, and the generaliza- 
tions give the effect, at least, of caution and precision. We have 
human action of the most serious kind, the action of mature men 
affecting and governing the lives of nations. We have become so 
conditioned I think that is the word to the reading of novels, 
that we are likely to have the feeling that human nature cannot 
be depicted with depth or subtlety except as it appears in what 
we should call the personal adventures of the relatively young, 
in the private relationships arising in what is relatively the leisure 
time of the characters. To appreciate fully what Adams has done 
with his people, one must have, I suppose, a sufficient interest in 
history as bare fact not to be troubled by it; but the interest at 
least is adult and I can see no great harm in anyone's having it. 

To the reader who habitually assumes that the great historians 
are necessarily in the heroic tradition, and that the only other his- 
torical type is that of the schoolroom text or the professional 
monograph, Adams' history may at first glance appear disappoint- 

ing: it employs the method of the learned monograph, in a sense, 
but it raises the method to a form of art. This is what one should 
not overlook. The style is expert and flexible; it is never too ex- 
alted for its subject, as is sometimes the style of Gibbon; it never 
carries too much conviction to be convincing, as does sometimes 
the style of Macaulay or that of Motley. It is a style that can offer 
a sequence of dates or the summary of a document, without loss 
either of accuracy or of distinction. It is in the passages dealing 
with the play of character that the book is most brilliant, but if 
one reads and rereads it carefully, one discovers that the play of 
character is comprehensible as a result of the author's careful 
preparations, and that the style is adequate with respect to every- 
thing it touches. 

The history is penetrated with precise intelligence in all its 
parts: it is in this quality, I think, that it surpasses any other 
historical masterpiece with which I am acquainted. There is 
greater magnificence in portions of Gibbon, Macaulay, and 
Motley, but there is seldom the skill of penetration, and there is 
not the uniformity of success in any of them. And the wit of 
Adams is invariably the result of understanding instead of the 
result of its absence. 

What may have been the immediate cause of his turning away 
from the writing of history to the irresponsible activities of his 
later years, it might be hard to say. The death of his wife will not 
account for it, for a large part of the history was finished after 
that event; and the suggestion, which occurs in one of his letters, 
that the cause was the discouragement of his publishers, need be 
given but very little weight. Probably it was merely the accumula- 
tion of emotion, the result of an ancestral tendency, which finally 
reached a state where it influenced his action definitively. The 
letters indicate a regret for his past distinction, however. In 1899 
he wrote to Elizabeth Cameron: 44 

So I read on and enjoyed my own history, which I am correcting 
in case of further editions. As a rule it bores me, and I have to drive 
myself up to the task, but yesterday I happened on the third volume, 

44 Letters of Henry Adams, op. cit., p. 215. 


and was greatly amused by it. I was honestly surprised that no one 
ever mentioned it to me, or spoke of it in the press, so that I had 
never read it or heard of it before. 

And to the same correspondent he wrote even more regretfully 
about two years later, referring to himself by a name of his own 
invention which he occasionally employs in his letters: 4 


The trouble is, and always has been, and always will be, with the 
greed and selfishness and jealousy and ambition of senators. On that 
subject you can read a now forgotten work written by one of your 
acquaintances long since dead, one Dordy d'Ullivier d* Angoulme, 
tedious enough but elaborately supported by historical evidence in 
nine volumes. 

And in the same year he wrote to Henry Osborn Taylor, the 
eminent medievalist, who had formerly been his pupil : 4(i 

You have gone so far beyond me, both in horizon and in study, 
that I feel our situations reversed. You are the professor; I am the 
student.' My role suits me better now, for I was always indolent and 
have always shirked responsibility. Between the admission that every- 
thing is right and everything wrong, I could never see my way to set 
up a sign-post. 

In 1917, he wrote to Charles Milnes Gaskell, in one of his last 
letters: 47 

There are just three of my contemporaries living on this shore, but 
we have all lost our minds or our senses and no one thinks it worth 
while to tell us so. No books come out. I am not aware that there are 
any writers left, certainly none in my branch, which was extinct five 
and twenty years ago and more. No one even remembers the name 
of Lord Macaulay. I once wrote some books myself, but no one has 
even mentioned the fact to me for more than a generation. I have a 
vague recollection that once some young person did mention an 
anecdote to me that came from one of my books and that he attrib- 
uted it to some one else. 

45 Ibid., p. 318 
40 Ibid., p. 331 
47 Ibid., p. 644 


or The Hedonist's Progress 1 

THOUGH WALLACE STEVENS has published almost nothing in 
the way of criticism, he has nevertheless been very clear in stating 
his theories of life and of literature, and he may justifiably be 
treated, I believe, in a series of essays on literary theorists. 

His fundamental ideas are stated in Sunday Morning, an early 
poem, and in some ways his greatest. The poem consists of eight 
stanzas in blank verse, each containing fifteen lines, and it 
presents a clear and fairly coherent argument. 

The first stanza sets the stage and identifies the protagonist. 
We are given a woman, at home on a Sunday morning, meditat- 
ing on the meaning of death. The second stanza asks the question 
which provides the subject of the poem; it asks what divinity this 
woman may be thought to possess as a recompense for her ulti- 
mate surrender to death; and having asked the question, it replies 
that her divinity, which must live within herself, consists wholly 
in her emotions not in her understanding of the emotions, but 
in the emotions as a good in themselves. This answer is not quite 
the orthodox romantic answer, which would offer us in the emo- 
tions either a true guide to virtue or a more or less mystical ex- 
perience leading to some kind of union with some kind of deity. 
Any philosophy which offers the cultivation of the emotions as 
an end in itself, I suppose, is a kind of hedonism. In any event, 
that is the kind of philosophy which we find here. 

1 All poems mentioned in this essay, unless otherwise identified, are to be 
found in the second edition of Hartnonmtn, by Wallace Stevens, published by 
Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1931. The book is small, indexed, and wen 
known, and page references seem unnecessary. 

43 1 

The third stanza, by means of the allegory of Jove $nd his hu- 
man loves, through his union with whom he crossed the heavenly 
strain upon the human, implies that man has a capacity which 
may at least figuratively be termed divine; the stanza is a subor- 
dinate commentary on the one preceding, and does not really 
advance the argument. 

In the fourth stanza, however, the argument moves forward. 
The protagonist objects to the concept which has been offered 
her; she states that the beauties of this life are transient and that 
she longs to believe in a Paradise beyond them. The remainder 
of the stanza, and the greater part of it, is the poet's reply: in a 
passage of great rhetorical power, he denies the possibility of 
Paradise, at the same time that he communicates through the 
feeling of his language a deep nostalgic longing to accept the 
ideas which he is rejecting. In the first two lines of the fifth 
stanza, the woman repeats her objection, and the poet then replies 
with an explanation of the function of death: it is our awareness 
of the imminence of death which heightens our emotions and 
sharpens* our perceptions; our knowledge of life's transience 
stimulates our perception of life's beauty. 

In the sixth stanza the poet considers an hypothetical para- 
dise, and, since he can imagine it only in terms of a projection 
of the good life as the hedonist understands the good life, he 
deduces that paradise would become tedious and insipid: we 
have in this stanza the first sharp vision of the ennui which is to 
obsess the later work of the poet and which is ultimately to wreck 
his talent, an ennui arising from the fact that emotion is not a 
good in itself, but that if cultivated for itself alone is merely a 
pleasant diversion so long as the novelty of a given experience 
endures, at most as long as new experiences can give us the illu- 
sion of novel excitement, and then becomes a disease of the spirit, 
a state of indifferency in which there is neither novelty nor 

The seventh stanza presents a vision of a future race of men 
engaged in a religious ritual, the generating principle of which is 
their joy in the world as it is given them and their sense of 
brotherhood as "men that perish/' The stanza contains sugges- 


tions of a pantheism which goes beyond the bounds of a strict 
hedonism, but they are merely suggestions and they appear no- 
where else. The eighth and last stanza begins by denying the im- 
mortality of Jesus, and, by implication, of man; and it places the 
protagonist finally and irretrievably on a small but beautiful 
planet, floating like a tropical island in boundless space, "in an 
old chaos of the sun." 

This summary, even as summaries go, is extremely skeletalized. 
It has been my intention, here, merely to isolate the hedonistic 
theme for future consideration; the theme is not thus isolated 
in the poem, but is complicated by its interconnections with other 
human problems from which not even a hedonist can escape. 
Whatever the defects of the hedonistic theme, and with the pos- 
sible but by no means certain exception of a few short poems by 
Stevens and of two or three poems by E. A. Robinson, Sunday 
Morning is probably the greatest American poem of the twen- 
tieth century and is certainly one of the greatest contemplative 
poems in English: in a blank verse which differs, in its firmness 
of structure and incalculable sensitivity of detail, from all other 
blank verse of our time save that of a few poems by Hart Crane 
which were in some measure modeled upon it, it renders the 
acute uncertainty of what we are inclined to consider the modern 
mind, but it does so with no uncertainty of method or of state- 
ment; it renders an acute consciousness of the imminence of death, 
of the sensory and emotional richness of life on this bewildering 
planet, and of the heroic magnificence of the religious myths 
which are lost to the poet and to many of the rest of us, except 
as memories of things long past. If Stevens* career had stopped 
with this poem, or a few years thereafter, it might seem an un- 
necessary unkindness to insist upon the limitations of understand- 
ing which the poem discloses; but those limitations appear very 
obviously in a few later poems, and they seem to me to be very 
clearly related to the rapid and tragic decay of the poet's style. As 
a poet in early maturity, Stevens brought to this subject a style 
which was the result of a fine native gift enriched by the study of 
English blank verse; the subject, once formulated, and accepted 
as a guide to life and to expression, destroyed the style in less 


than two decades. In Sunday Morning itself, we detect the limita- 
tions of the subject only by rational analysis; in the later work we 
see the effect of those limitations. 

We may consider briefly, and perhaps as a kind of footnote to 
Sunday Morning, one of the more obscure poems, called The 
Stars at Tallapoosa. As far as I can penetrate this poem, I judge 
that it postulates the absolute severance of the intellectual and 
the emotional: the lines between the stars are the lines of pure 
intellect; the earth-lines and the sea-lines represent the non- 
intellectual experience (loosely speaking) of daily human life. 
Both modes of experience have beauty and should be pursued, 
but they are disparate and unrelated to each other; and it follows, 
although this is not stated in the poem, that the intellectual ex- 
perience, since it bears no relationship to the rest of our life and 
hence is in no way useful, is valuable simply for the independent 
emotional excitement which one may derive from it. 

If we turn to A High-Toned Old Christian Woman, a brief 
didactic and satirical poem, which is quite clear and unmistak- 
able as regards its theoretic import, we get an additional step in 
the argument: we learn that the "moral law" is not necessary as 
a framework for art, but that "the opposing law" will do as well, 
and that in either event, the artists, 

Your disaffected flagellants, well-stuffed, 

Smacking their muzzy bellies in parade, 

Proud of such novelties of the sublime, 

Suck tink and tank and tunk-a-tunk-tunk, 

May, merely may, madame, whip from themselves 

A jovial hullabaloo among the spheres. 

Stevens, in becoming thus explicit, states his final doctrine, as do 
certain other contemporary theorists, in language surprisingly 
reminiscent of Poe: 

"It may be, indeed, that here this sublime end is, now and then, 
attained in fact. We are often made to feel with a shivering delight, 


that from an earthly harp are stricken notes which cannot have been 
unfamiliar to the angels." 2 

Poe's statement is made, of course, in the tone of saccharine 
sentimentality which is Poe's nearest approach to sincerity; 
Stevens' statement is made ironically, but one should not be mis- 
led by this fact. For though Stevens is ridiculing himself and his 
artists, he is ridiculing his old Christian woman, the representa- 
tive of the moralistic point of view, even more severely: he is 
offering his opinion as more nearly tenable than hers, notwith- 
standing the fact that he cannot offer his opinion with real seri- 
ousness. Stevens' self-ridicule is as irrational in its way as Poe's 
sentimentalism, and like that sentimentalism springs from a doc- 
trine which eliminates the possibility of the rational understand- 
ing of experience and of a moral judgment deriving therefrom: 
since no idea is really tenable and since we cannot judge of the 
justice of a feeling but can only seek to heighten its intensity, all 
ideas and all feelings may fairly be, and sooner or later, in the 
history of a sensitive and witty man, are certain to be, subjected 
to merciless ridicule; but of this we shall see more interesting 
evidence later. 

It is perhaps not important, but it is at least mildly interesting, 
to call attention at this point to a poem which has been at least 
twice misinterpreted by commentators who have not taken the 
trouble to understand Stevens as a whole. The poem is Anecdote 
of the Jar: 

I placed a jar in Tennessee, 
And round it was, upon a hill. 
It made the slovenly wilderness 
Surround that hill. 

The wilderness rose up to it, 

And sprawled around, no longer wild. 

3 From The Poetic Principle, page 12 of Vol. I of the three volumes of 
criticism in Poe's works, the edition of Stedman and Woodberry. Quoted and 
elucidated in my essay on Poe, in the present volume. 


The jar -was round upon the ground 
And tall and of a port in air. 

It took dominion everywhere. 
The jar was gray and hare. 
It did not give of hird or hush, 
Like nothing else in Tennessee. 

Stanley P. Chase has written of this poem: 

"Very likely the little poem is meant to suggest nothing more than 
the superiority, to an intensely civilized person, of the simplest bit of 
handicraft over any extent of unregulated 'nature* . . ." 3 

And Howard Baker writes with the same obtuseness, but with 
greater elaborateness: 

"Similarly a wild and disorderly landscape is transformed into 
order by t^e presence of a symmetrical vase. . . . The jar acts in the 
imagination like one of the poles of the earth, the imaginary order 
of the lines of latitude and longitude projecting around the pole. The 
jar itself simple and symmetrical, a product of the human conscious- 
ness and not of nature is a very fitting symbol for man's dominion 
over nature . . ." 4 

If the poein ended with the fourth line, there might be an im- 
perfect justification of the interpretation offered by these writers, 
for in the first four lines the wilderness is not only dominated by 
the jar as, in fact, it is dominated throughout the poem, but it 
is called slovenly. If we examine the next two lines, however, we 
see that the phrase, "the slovenly wilderness," is in fact a slovenly 
ellipsis. The wilderness is slovenly after it has been dominated 
and not before: it "sprawled around, no longer wild/' The jar is 
the product of the human mind, as the critics remark, and it 
dominates the wilderness; but it does not give order to the wilder- 

8 Dionysus in Dismay, by Stanley P. Chase, in Humanism and America, 
edited by Norman Foerster, Farrar and Rinehart, New York, 1930, page 211. 

4 Wallace Stevens and Other Poets, by Howard Baker, The Southern Review, 
Vol. I, Number 2, Autumn 1935, page 376. 


ness it is vulgar and sterile, and it transforms the wilderness into 
the semblance of a deserted picnic ground. Its sterility is in- 
dicated in the last three lines, and if the jar is to be accepted as 
symbolic of the human intellect, then the poem is in part another 
example of the same theme which we found in The Stars at 
Tallapoosa, but expressed this time with disillusionment and a 
measure of disgust. The poem would appear to be primarily an 
expression of the corrupting effect of the intellect upon natural 
beauty, and hence a purely romantic performance. To read any 
measure of neo-humanism into Stevens is as foolish as to en- 
deavor, in the manner of certain young critics of a few years ago, 
to read into him a kind of incipient and trembling consciousness 
of the beauty of Marxism. 

I have already pointed out that in the sixth stanza of Sunday 
Morning, the stanza in which Stevens projects into the eternity 
of paradise the highest good which he can imagine, there appears 
a weary dissatisfaction with the experience, a hint of the dissatis- 
faction which might imaginably appear in our present life if the 
experience were too long protracted. This dissatisfaction is famil- 
iar to students of romantic literature under the name of ennui; 
it is the boredom which eventually overtakes the man who seeks 
for excitement instead of understanding. In the poem entitled 
The Man Whose Pharynx Was Bad we find a statement of this 
boredom which is both extreme and explicit. The poem as it 
appears in Harmonium lacks four lines of the original version, 
lines ten to thirteen inclusive, which appeared in The New Re- 
public for September 14, 1921. Those lines are essential to the 
poem and to the understanding of Stevens, and I shall quote the 
entire poem in its original version: 

The time of year has grown indifferent. 
Mildew of summer and the deepening snow 
Are both alike in the routine I know; 
I am too dumbly in my being pent. 

The wind attendant on the solstices 
Blows on the shutters of the metropoles, 


Stirring no poet in his sleep, and tolls 
The grand ideas of the villages. 

The malady of the quotidian . . . 

Perhaps if summer ever came to rest 

And lengthened, deepened, comforted, caressed 

Through days like oceans in obsidian 

Horizons, full of night's midsummer blaze; 
Perhaps, if winter once could penetrate 
Through all its purples to the final slate, 
Persisting bleakly in an icy haze; 

One might in turn become less diffident, 

Out of such mildew plucking neater mould 

And spouting new orations of the cold. 

One might. One might. But time will not relent. 

The poet has progressed in this poem to the point at which the 
intensity'bf emotion possible in actual human life has become 
insipid, and he conceives the possibility of ultimate satisfaction 
only in some impossible emotional finality of no matter what 
kind. In fact, the figurative opposites of summer and winter here 
offered suggest the opposites of the moral and the anti-moral 
which appear in A High-Toned Old Christian Woman. 

The situation in which Stevens may here be observed is similar 
to a difficulty in which Poe found himself. Poe, like Stevens, 
sought only emotional stimulation in the arts, and hence he con- 
sidered novelty, and novelty of a fairly crude kind, to be an essen- 
tial of good art. He wrote : 

"Nothing is more clear than this proposition, although denied by 
the chlorine critics (the grass-green). The desire of the new is an 
element of the soul. The most exquisite pleasures grow dull in repeti- 
tion. A strain of music enchants. Heard a second time, it pleases. 
Heard a tenth it does not displease. We hear it a twentieth, and ask 
ourselves why we admired. At the fiftieth, it produces ennui, at the 
hundredth disgust/' 5 

"' Op. cit. Vol. Ill, p. 107. 

Both men are in search of intense feeling; neither is in search 
of just feeling, of feeling properly motivated. The poem as an 
exercise in just feeling is an act of moral judgment, as I have 
repeatedly indicated; and though all such judgments must of 
necessity tte governed by general principles, yet each particular 
judgment, since it arises from an individual relationship between 
unique persons and events, will be, if truly just, unique, as indi- 
vidual men are unique, and will have its own inexhaustible fas- 
cination as a living entity. But if one does not recognize this prin- 
ciple of justice, then the poem can have no true uniqueness: the 
poet and the reader alike are bent, as are Poe and Stevens, on a 
quest for the new, which, in the realm of emotion divorced from 
understanding or any principle of propriety, can be found only 
in new degrees of intensity and of strangeness; and as each new 
degree achieved becomes familiar it is submerged in the mono- 
tone of that which is no longer new, so that the search is equally 
devoid of hope and of significance. Poe never had the wit to per- 
ceive the futility of this search; Stevens has the wit not only to see 
the futility but to be both depressed and ironic in consequence, 
yet he is unable to think himself out of the situation into which 
he has wandered. 

Unless one change one's entire philosophy, having arrived at 
this impasse, there can remain open to one only two modes of 
action: one may renounce one's art and subside into a kind of 
stoical silence; or one may pursue, not greater intensity of ex- 
perience, for human language and the human organism alike 
set a certain limit to progress in that direction, but experience 
increasingly elusive and incomprehensible. Stevens has consid- 
ered both of these possibilities, but since he has chosen the 
latter, we may fairly examine first the mode of action which 
he has considered and discarded. It so happens, incidentally, 
that his meditation upon the possibility of renunciation has re- 
sulted in his longest single work. 

The Comedian as the Letter C (the significance of the title, 
I regret to say, escapes both my learning and my ingenuity) 
is a narrative poem in six parts, dealing with a poet who begins 
with romantic views of the function of his art and who, in re- 


forming them, comes to abandon his art as superfluous. The 
first part of the poem deals with Crispin's encounter with the 
sea, that is, with his realization of a universe vast, chaotic, and 
impersonal beyond his power of formulation or imagination, 
and rendering him contemptible by contrast. In the second part, 
Crispin arrives in Yucatan, disillusioned as to his old convictions, 
but finding a heightened experience and new food for his art in 
the barbaric violence of the tropical landscape; finding these, 
that is, until he is overwhelmed by a thunderstorm, of which the 
symbolic function is similar to that of the sea in the first part, 
and is driven with the terrified crowd about him into the cathe- 
dral. In the third part he returns to North America, intent now, 
not on the extreme and unnatural excitements of the southern 
landscape which he has left, but on the discovery of reality: 

He gripped more closely the essential prose 

As being, in a world, so falsified, 

The one integrity for him, the one 

Discovery still possible to make, 

To which all poems were incident, unless 

That prose should wear a poems guise at last. 

But he is bent on discovering not the reality of his own nature, 
but rather the reality of his native country. Man is no longer, 
as in the first line of the first part, the intelligence of his soil; 
but the soil, as we note in the first line of the next and fourth 
section, is man's intelligence. These statements do not have the 
philosophical lucidity which would delight the present simple 
paraphraser, but they seem to mean, in their relationship to 
this poem, that Crispin has been turned away first from the 
attempt to study himself directly, and second from the attempt 
to indulge in exotic experiences, and that he has been turned 
instead to the attempt to master his native environment to mas- 
ter it, that is, for the purposes of poetry. The nature of this 
last procedure I do not pretend to understand, and since the 
words which I have just used are my own and are not quoted 
from Stevens, it is possible that my confusion is of my own con- 
triving. But in general, I should say that Stevens appears to 


have slipped here into the Whitmanian form of a romantic error 
common enough in our literature, but current especially in 
Stevens' generation and espoused in particular by Stevens' friend 
W. C. Williams: the fallacy that the poet achieves salvation by 
being, in some way, intensely of and expressive of his country. 
A common variant of this notion is the idea that the poet should 
bear the same relationship to his time, and in fact the two 
versions are perhaps most commonly combined, as they are in 
Williams. Felt with sufficient intensity, they become indistin- 
guishable, as in Crane or even in Whitman, from pantheism, and 
go quite beyond the bounds of hedonism; but the notions in 
question represent merely a casual subject for meditation in 
Stevens, a subject which he considers because he is confused 
but which involves a spiritual quality, a capacity for naively 
whole-hearted enthusiasm, which is quite foreign to his nature. 
The ideas are the attempt to justify a kind of extroversion: the 
poet, cut off from human nature, which is his proper subject- 
matter, seeks to find a subject in the description, or, as the saying 
goes, in the expression, of what is round about him. In practice, 
this results mainly, as in Williams, in a heavy use of the native 
landscape, sometimes as legitimate symbolism or background, 
sometimes as the subject of mere description, sometimes as false 
symbolism: 6 in the first of these three instances, the poet is 
actually intent on doing something not adequately explained by 
his theory; in the second he is doing something relatively easy 
and unimportant; and in the third he is writing badly. Crispin 
seeks, then, an understanding not of himself but of his native 
landscape, and his native landscape is a temperate one, which 
does not offer the flamboyant and succulent excitements of Yuca- 

The spring came there in clinking pannicles 
Of half-dissolving frost, the summer came, 
If every whisked and wet, not ripening, 
Before the winters vacancy returned. 

*This whole topic is discussed at length in the essay entitled The Experi- 
mental School in American Poetry (the section on pseudo-reference) in the 
present volume. 


This landscape is the one which appears in The Man Whose 
Pharynx Was Bad? and which Stevens there uses to symbolize 
his own frustration. But Crispin, having returned from Yucatan, 
hopes now to achieve the beatific pleasure reserved for the suc- 
cessful hedonist, not by extravagance of experience, but by hon- 
esty and accuracy of experience: by honesty and accuracy, how- 
ever, so far as we can judge from the poem, merely in describing 
the scenery which surrounds him, as if, perhaps, there were 
some ulterior virtue in this process which cannot quite be defined 
in words. The fourth section of the poem is really an elaboration 
upon the central ideas of the third, and it scarcely calls for 
comment at present. In the fifth and sixth parts, Crispin's con- 
centration upon the normal world about him results in his marry- 
ing and begetting daughters; and finding that the facts which he 
had set out to describe with such exemplary honesty are more 
engrossing than the description of them, he abandons his art, 
in order, as very young people are sometimes heard to say, to 
live. This is not surprising, for the honest description which 
Crispin set out to achieve is in itself a moral experience, though 
of a very limited kind: honest description renders the feeling ap- 
propriate to purely sensory experience, and is hence a kind of 
judgment of that experience. But if Crispin had realized this, 
he would have realized the whole moral basis of art, and would 
have proceeded to more complex subjects; not realizing this, he 
lost interest in his simplified art, and found the art even in this 
simplified form to be the last element of confusion remaining 
in his experience: to achieve intelligent objectivity, Crispin is 
forced to abandon his description and merely enjoy the subject- 
matter of his description in the most naked possible of con- 

He first) as realist, admitted, that 
Whoever hunts a matinal continent 
May, after all, stop short hefore a plum 
And he content and still he realist. 
The "words of things entangle and confuse. 

The plum survives its poems 

it survives in its awn form, 

Beyond these changes, good fat guzzly fruit. 

We have now the complete argument, I believe, which leads to 
Crispin's renunciation. The passage in which the renunciation 
takes place, however, is interesting for another reason; for the 
quality of the rhetoric employed at this particular juncture helps 
us profoundly to understand Stevens himself. The passage fol- 
lows closely upon the lines just quoted and will be found about 
half-way through the fifth section: 

Was he to bray this in profonndest brass 
Arointing his dreams with fugal requiems? 
Was he to company vastest things defunct 
With a blubber of tom-toms harrowing the sky? 
Scrawl a tragedian s testament? Prolong 
His active force in an inactive dirge, 
Which, let the tall musicians call and call, 
Should merely call him dead? Pronounce amen 
Through choirs infolded to the outmost clouds? 
Because he built a cabin who once planned 
Loquacious columns by tlie ructive sea? 
Because he turned to salad beds again? 

What I wish the reader to note is this: that the passage describes 
Crispin's taking leave of his art, and describes also his refusal 
to use his art in the process of leave-taking, because the art is, 
after all, futile and contemptible. Yet for Stevens himself the 
entire poem is a kind of tentative leave-taking; he has not the 
courage to act as his hero acts and be done with it, so he prac- 
tices the art which he cannot justify and describes it in terms 
of contempt. Furthermore, the chief instrument of irony in this 
passage, and throughout the poem, and indeed throughout much 
of the rest of Stevens, is a curious variant on the self-ridicule, the 
romantic irony, with which we are familiar from Byron through 


Laforgue and his modern disciples; 7 the instrument is self- 
parody, a parody occasionally subtle, often clumsy, of the re- 
fined and immutable style of Stevens at his best. To estimate 
at least a part of the tragedy represented by Stevens' career, the 
reader can scarcely do better than compare the lines quoted above 
with the last section of the much earlier Sunday Morning: 

She hears upon that water without sound, 

A voice that cries, "The tomb in Palestine 

Is not the porch of spirits lingering. 

It is the grave of Jesus where he lay." 

We live in an old chaos of the sun, 

Or old dependency of day and night, 

Or island solitude, unsponsored, free, 

Of that wide water, inescapable. 

Deer walk upon our mountains, and the quail 

Whistle about us their spontaneous cries; 

Sweet berries ripen in the wilderness; 

And, in the isolation of the sky, 

At evening, casual flocks of pigeons make 

Ambiguous undulations as they sink,. 

Downward to darkness, on extended wings. 

Since the poet, having arrived at the predicament to which we 
have traced him, however, is not to abandon his art, there re- 
mains only the possibility that he seek variety of experience in 
the increasingly perverse and strange; that he seek it, moreover, 
with no feeling of respect toward the art which serves as his 
only instrument and medium. In the poem entitled The Revolu- 
tionists Stop for Orangeade, we are given the theory of this 
type of poetry: 

Hang a feather by your eye, 
Nod and look a little sly. 

7 This entire subject is discussed in the latter part of my second essay in 
Primitivism and Decadence, already mentioned. 


This must lye the vent of pity, 
Deeper than a truer ditty 
Of the real that wrenches, 
Of the quick that's wry. 

And from this point onward there remains little but the sly 
look and a perverse ingenuity in confusing the statement of 
essentially simple themes. The Man with the Blue Guitar? for 
example, which is one of his most recent performances, is merely 
a jingling restatement of the old theme of the severance be- 
tween the rational understanding and the poetic imagination. 
But the statement is never quite clear; and since the theme, 
though unsound, is far from difficult to understand, one is in- 
clined to suspect that the lack of clarity is the result of a de- 
liberate choice, a choice motivated, perhaps, by the hope that 
some note more moving than the poet has a right to expect 
may be struck from the obscurity. And if one does not always 
encounter such wilful semiobscurity in the later poems, one 
much too commonly encounters the kind of laborious foolish- 
ness to be found in the following poem, entitled The Mechanical 
Optimist, published in New Directions for 1936: 

A lady dying of diabetes 
Listened to the radio, 
Catching the lesser dithyrambs. 
So heaven collects its bleating lambs. 

Her useless bracelets fondly fluttered, 
Paddling the melodic swirls, 
The idea of God no longer sputtered 
At the roots of her indifferent curls. 

The idea of the Alps grew large, 
Not yet, however, a thing to die in. 

9 The Man with the Blue Guitar, by Wallace Stevens, Alfred A. Knopf, 
N. Y., 1937. 


It seemed serener just to die, 

To float off on the floweriest barge, 

Accompanied by the exegesis 

Of familiar things in a cheerful voice, 

Like the night before Christmas and all the carols. 

Dying lady, rejoice, rejoice! 

The generating mood is one of ennui; the style represents an 
effort, half-bored and half desperate, to achieve originality; the 
victim of the irony is very small game, and scarcely worthy of 
the artillery of the author of Sunday Morning; the point of view 
is adolescent. The author of Sunday Morning and of Le Monocle 
de Mon Oncle, the heir of Milton and of Jonson, is endeavor- 
ing, in his old age, to epater les bourgeois. The poem is the work 
of a man who twenty or twenty-five years earlier was one of the 
great poets of the English language. 

This is the outline, I believe, of the sequence of ideas and 
states of 'frrind which have debased the greatest American poetic 
talent of the twentieth century. The sequence is offered merely 
as a species of logical sequence; it is only imperfectly chrono- 
logical. Stevens was a hedonist from the beginning, and the entire 
complex of ideas and feelings which I have recounted are to be 
found in his work from the beginning. But although it is possible 
to find some of his most willful nonsense Earthy Anecdote, let 
us say, or Metaphors of a Magnifico among his earlier poems, it 
is likewise true that all of his great poetry is early. Sunday Morn- 
ing is one of the earliest compositions; The Snow Man, Le 
Monocle de Mon Oncle, Of the Manner of Addressing Clouds, 
Of Heaven Considered as a Tomb, The Death of the Soldier are 
all of the next few years. All of these poems were written and 
first published before 1923, the date of the first edition of Har- 
monium; and if there is a later poem as good I do not know it 
or cannot appreciate it. There are other poems, more or less 
early, less perfect or of smaller scope but still of considerable 
beauty, such as Peter Quince at the Clavier or Cortege for Rosen- 
bloom, and such poems as these one may find equalled occasion- 


ally, though very rarely, at a later date; but these two surpass any- 
thing by the author which I have read in the past decade. 

Some of the virtues of Sunday Morning I have indicated in 
very general terms, but one cannot turn from the poem that 
may be the greatest American work of our century without con- 
sidering briefly some of its more haunting beauties, if it be only 
as an act of piety. 

I have already quoted the final stanza of the poem, and its 
beauty should be obvious; yet as removed from its context, the 
stanza loses much of its complexity. The "water without sound/* 
the "wide water inescapable/' is not only an image representing 
infinite space; it is an image, established in the first stanza, repre- 
senting a state of mind, a kind of bright and empty beatitude, 
over which the thought of death may darken suddenly and with- 
out warning: 

She dreams a little, and she feels the dark 
Encroachment of that old catastrophe, 
As a calm darkens among water-lights. 

The language has the greatest possible dignity and subtlety, com- 
bined with perfect precision. The imminence of absolute tragedy 
is felt and recorded, but the integrity of the feeling mind is 
maintained. The mind perceives, as by a kind of metaphysical 
sense, the approach of invading impersonality; yet knowing the 
invasion to be inevitable and its own identity, while that identity 
lasts, the only source of any good whatever, maintains that identity 
in its full calm and clarity, that nothing may be sacrificed without 
need. This combination of calm and terror, in dealing with this 
particular theme, will be found in only one other poet in English, 
in Shakespeare as one finds him in a few of the more metaphysical 
sonnets. 9 The calm clarity of tone enables the poet to deal with 
a variety of kinds of feeling which would be impossible were the 
terror emphasized for a moment at any point, were the complete 

9 1 have discussed this attitude of Shakespeare and some of its historical back- 
ground in Poetry: A Magazine of Verse for February, March, and April, 1939; 
and have analyzed the 77th sonnet with this attitude in mind on page 49 of 
the issue for April. 


and controlled unity of the experiencing mind for a moment dis- 
ordered by its own perceptions. The same poem, for example, 
is able to contain the following lines, of a sweetness and of an illu- 
sory simplicity which again are scarcely less than Shakespearean : 

She says, "I am content when wakened birds, 

Before they fly, test the reality 

Of misty fields, by their sweet questionings; 

But when the birds are gone, and their warm fields 

Return no more, where, then, is paradise?" 

And out of this passage proceeds the great lament for the lost 
myths, which I have already mentioned. This passage and others 
similar, though beautiful in themselves, are a preparation for the 
descriptive lines in the last stanza, and when we finally come to 
those lines, they are weighted with meaning and feeling ac- 
cumulated from all that has gone before. It is difficult for this 
reason to quote from the poem for the purpose of illustrating its 

One aspect of the poem may perhaps be mentioned, however, 
with some small profit, and it may best be indicated, I believe, 
through a brief comparison with Bryant's Thanatopsis. Bryant's 
poem is a great poem and is worthy of the comparison, and its 
resemblance to Stevens' poem in certain ways is both surprising 
and illuminating. Both poems are semididactic meditations on 
death, written in a firm but simplified Miltonic blank verse, the 
verse of Stevens, possibly, being somewhat smoothed and softened 
by the intervention of Tennyson. Both poems are pagan in their 
view: but that of Bryant, the New Englander of the early 19th 
century, is essentially stoical, whereas that of Stevens, the Penn- 
sylvanian of the 20th century, is Epicurean. Both poems find man, 
a spiritual being, isolated in a physical universe: but for Bryant 
that universe is the Earth, hairy, vast, and almost against the eye; 
for Stevens it is the tropical Pacific of infinity, in which the earth 
appears as an infinitesimal floating island. 

The poems resemble each other more curiously, however, in 

that each bears a particular relationship to an antecedent body 
of more or less decadent poetry. 

The deistic philosophy of the 18th century had early gen- 
erated in its numerous followers a combination of ideas and at- 
titudes which was to mark literary style, and especially poetic 
style, more strongly, perhaps, than any other philosophy has ever 
done. Deism was an amateur philosophy, a fact which may ac- 
count in part for its rapid rise to popularity among men of letters 
and gentlemen at large: it received its definitive philosophical 
outline from the third Earl of Shaftesbury and its definitive 
literary expression from Alexander Pope, in The Essay on Man. 
Roughly speaking, one may say that these writers taught: 10 that 
the world is ruled by a beneficent mind, that everything is as it 
must be, that what appears to be evil is actually good as relative 
to the whole, that because the ruling mind is beneficent man will 
find happiness in all his benevolent affections and beneficent ac- 
tions and misery in their opposites. They taught likewise 11 that 
virtue is natural to man and that the instincts and emotions are 
more reliable guides to conduct than the reason, though train- 
ing and cultivation may refine these guides; that, in the words of 
Robertson, 12 "to be good humored and truly cultivated is to be 
right in religion and conduct, and consequently happy." The con- 
tradictions in this philosophy have been so often recounted that 
I need scarcely remark upon them here. What I wish to point 
out is this: that in spite of all contradictions the philosophy repre- 
sents an attack on the rational faculty and a fairly complete out- 
line of later romanticism; that the attack is made by means of 
what purport to be the methods of the rational faculty that is, the 
attack is composed of a small set of concepts which are supposed 
to explain all experience, and which are moved about in various 
pseudo-rational relationships in order that certain philosophical 

10 Shaftesbury' s "Characteristics" edited by J. M. Robertson, London, Grant 
Richards, 1900; editor's introduction pp. xxix and xxx. 

11 Pope, Essay on Man, especially Epistle III, more especially section II 
thereof; e.g., lines 97-8: And Reason raise o'er Instinct as you can,/ In this 'tis 
God directs, in that 'tis Man. 

12 J. M. Robertson, op. cit., p. xxxi. 


conclusions may be reached. The deists appear to have achieved 
the delusion that they were reasoning with a final and immutable 
clarity, at the same time that they were attacking with all their 
small but apparently sufficient intellectual powers the very foun- 
dations of reason itself. 

Their ideas generated an attitude of smug imperception in at 
least two ways: they were sure, in the first place, that they had 
solved all the essential problems of philosophy, history, 18 and 
morals, with the result that moral ideas and feelings were with 
increasing regularity expressed in a fixed set of stereotyped ex- 
pressions or literary counters, which of necessity had for the most 
part a somewhat sentimental quality; and the general tendency 
of their philosophy worked to destroy the belief in the value of 
rational criticism, so that in spite of the composition of a good 
deal of literary criticism in the period, most of it somewhat super- 
ficial, the virtue of these counters long passed unchallenged, and 
when the challenge came, it came, strangely enough, not in the 
name of the intellect but in the name of the sensibility. Christian 
doctrine/ and to some extent the best classical philosophy preced- 
ing it, had taught man to examine himself according to sound and 
intricate rules, in order that he might improve himself, and, if a 
Christian, achieve salvation. Deistic doctrine taught him that he 
was fairly certain of achieving any salvation that there might 
be available if he would only refrain from examining himself: 
"There needs but thinking right [i.e., deistically], and meaning 
well." 14 The result was the 18th century cliche, the most ob- 
vious symptom of the neat and innocent reasoning and perceiving 
of so many 18th century writers. 

The Age of Reason has won that name from its heirs: from 
those who have agreed with it so completely as to abandon its 
literary methods, which were merely the methods of the preced- 
ing age, and too often unduly simplified. ir> The reasoning of the 

13 See The Art of History, by J. B. Black, Methuen and Co., Ltd., London, 
1926. This book, which I tear is out of print, is one of the most brilliant pieces 
of criticism of our century, and ought to be more widely available. 

14 Pope, The Essay on Man, Epistle IV, 1. 32. 

ir 'The conclusion of The Dunciad, though not unduly simplified, is an ex- 
ample of the continuance: it is the natural development of the procedure 


Age of Reason was very largely directed toward the destruction of 
the authority of Reason. Later romantic writers accepted the no- 
tion of the essential baseness of Reason with no real argument, 
and, when they began to see the monotony of 18th century lan- 
guage at its worst, they had recourse to the standard romantic 
explanation of dullness, that it was caused by excessive intel- 
lectualism; and we have as a result the nineteenth century judg- 
ment, which still prevails, of eighteenth century poetry, that it is 
bad because too intellectual, whereas in reality eighteenth century 
poetry is commonly good and is often great but displays defects 
which are primarily due to intellectual deficiency. The eighteenth 
century poetic language had become so well established by the 
middle of the century that it could dominate men with no respect 
for the ideas which seem to have generated it: Samuel Johnson 
had nothing but contempt for deism, yet his style shows the 
influence of deism; the influence upon his prose was small, for 
that was the medium which he cultivated most assiduously, but 
the influence upon his verse was great. The prologues to Comus 
and to A Word to the Wise, which are probably his greatest 
poems, are stereotyped in almost every detail of language, but are 
poems of extraordinary power because of the conviction and in- 
telligence of the author, which are expressed mainly in the plot 
and rational outline, and in a certain tragic irony with which the 
stereotypes are occasionally used: these poems are the work of a 
great genius employing a decadent language. The Reason, at this 
time, was tending toward immobility; and in those who accepted 
the doctrine, the emotions were freed: the natural outcome was 
to be found in Gray and Collins, men who in a discreet and 
sophisticated manner cultivated the feelings for their own sake, 
who generalized about the feelings with facile elegance but with 
small understanding, and who in varying degrees were the victims 
of uncomprehended melancholy. 

These men and others of less talent but closely related, such 
as Blair and Macpherson, formed much of the immediate back- 
established by Gascoigne, Ben Jonson, Greville, Donne, and others, and is one 
of the greatest passages in English poetry. The Essay on Man discloses a related 
procedure weakened by nonsense and sentimentalism. 

45 i 

ground of Bryant. The influence of Blair is to be seen in the 
form and matter of Thanatopsis; the influence of Ossian has been 
seen in Bryant's taste for panoramic landscape, though as a matter 
of fact Gray, Collins, and others of the period might be cited 
in this connection with equal justice. One of the most obvious 
relationships to these poets is to be seen in Byrant's early taste 
for the semi-epigrammatic epithet, which marks Gray's Elegy so 
strongly, a type of phrase which seems to show the breaking 
down of the Popian epigram in the direction of the standard 
cliche of the period: Gray's "mute inglorious Miltons" meet their 
milder descendants in Bryant's "solemn brood of care." The most 
interesting resemblance of Bryant to these romantic predecessors, 
however, is to be found in moments of a kind of melancholy, 
which though in a measure formal and even arbitrarily imposed 
upon the matter, is deeply felt by the poet. 

.... the vales 

Stretching in pensive quietness between . . . 
Where thy pale form was laid with many tears. . . . 

These lines are very beautiful in their way, but they are far 
from specific : a sadness deriving in part from the general theme of 
the poem, and in part from a traditionally fixed rhetoric and 
emotional approach, is spread like a fine haze across the whole 
body of detail. This rhetoric, with its cognate melancholy, which, 
though formulary, is none the less profoundly a state of mind, 
is the most obvious characteristic of early romanticism: it is ob- 
vious in Gray and Collins and faintly discernible in the early 

Blake and Wordsworth broke the somewhat narrow frame of 
this early romanticism by freeing new emotions, mainly the ob- 
scurely prophetic; Wordsworth freed himself from the rhetorical 
forms of the preceding* century by scrutinizing with literal exact- 
ness not his own human nature but the external nature of land- 
scape, and Blake and Coleridge achieved a comparable freedom 
by a similar literalness in treating the phantasmagoria of the super- 
natural. The scope of romantic poetry was thus widened, but 

it remained essentially romantic poetry: poetry, that is, which 
sought to free the emotions rather than to understand them. Ro- 
mantic poetry developed in the nineteenth century in England 
more or less along the lines indicated by these poets, and with no 
radical innovations of method after their time: the English roman- 
tics sought to free the emotions by writing about them in a more 
or less emotional manner; Wordsworth, of course, became less 
consistently Romantic as he matured. 

The next step in the development of romantic practice, though 
it was suggested by Coleridge in the doctrine of organic form, was 
first indicated more or less fully by Poe, and in the matter of 
actual poetic practice was perhaps first taken by Poe, though very 
haltingly. One sees its nature precisely in the great French Sym- 
bolists. If it is the business of the poem to "express" emotion, 
then the form itself of expression should be expressive and if we 
are rigorously reasonable, as a few of the romantics are, in the 
pursuit of their unreasonable ends, we shall see that language 
can best be purely expressive of emotion if it is so used that all 
except emotional content is as nearly as possible eliminated. Mal- 
larme was quite clear as to the necessity of eliminating rational 
content from language 16 and was more brilliant and more elabo- 
rate than any other poet has ever been, in his technique of 
elimination. The later poems especially display extremely obscure 
symbolism and reference, stated in a syntax so perverse as to be 
barely and very uncertainly explicable, at the same time that the 
individual phrases communicate feelings and perceptions more 
sharp and interesting, when viewed in isolation, than they fre- 
quently have a right to communicate when viewed as a part of 
any deducible whole. The suggestiveness of the details is forced 
into startling isolation by the difficulty of comprehending the 
poems as wholes; and this effect appears, at least, to be deliberately 
sought. The reader who is curious may profitably study the three 
sonnets beginning respectively Tout Orgueil fume-t-il du soir, 
Surgi de la croupe et du bond, and Une dentelle s'abolit in the 

16 See his Avant-dire to Ren6 Ghil's Traite du Verbe. An extensive quotation 
from this, with a brief commentary upon it, will be found on page 18 of the 
present volume. 


Fry-Mauron edition. 17 In the last of these, the technique of nega- 
tion, by which gross matter is eliminated, and feeling, it is hoped, 
is preserved, approaches the quality of unintentional parody: "A 
lace curtain is effaced in doubt of the supreme Game [the nature 
of the supreme Game, one should observe, is more than uncertain] 
to display like a blasphemy nothing but the eternal absence of any 
bed." The same doctrine is stated, perhaps less clearly, but in 
terms approaching those of Stevens in The Revolutionists Stop 
for Orangeade, by Paul Verlaine, in Art Poetique: 

11 faut aussi que tu n allies point 
Choisir tes mots sans quelqite meprise: 
Rien de plus cher que la chanson grise 
Oii I'lndecis au precis se joint. . . . 

Car nous voulons la Nuance encor, 
Pas la couleur, rien que la Nuance! ls 

And Rimbaud, in the version of Bonheur which appears in Les 
Illuminations, informs us that the beatitude of which he has 
made a magic study has made his speech incomprehensible, has 
caused it to take wing and escape; and earlier in the same poem 
he states that he has eliminated rational control from his life as 
well, for the same beatitude has taken possession of his life, both 
body and soul, and dispersed all effort. Just as the first great 

17 Poems by Mallanne. Translated by Roger Fry, with commentaries by 
Charles Mauron. 1936, Chatto & Windus, London. 

18 In spite of this statement Verlaine is more innocent than Mallarme', and 
less capable of intellectual perversity, as he is less capable than Rimbaud of 
consistent anti-moral energy and passion. On pages 99 and 100 of this vol- 
ume I refer to Verlaine as primitive that is, limited, or minor, but relatively 
sound in method rather than decadent. Such a view is supported by some 
of his best poems Malines or Le piano que hahe une main frdle, for example 
but not by all. The poem beginning Dans I' interminable differs not at all 
in method from Rimbaud's Larme; both employ a description of strange land- 
scape to communicate a feeling; but what is more or less conventionally 
obscure melancholy in Verlaine obscure in the sense that the motive of the 
melancholy is nowhere suggested is pushed to pure hallucination in Rimbaud. 
And many other poems by Verlaine use the same method: C'est I'extase lan- 
goureuse, for example, or Green. And it is worth remembering that the title 
of his best collection is Romances Sans Paroles. 


English romantics released the new subject matter, these poets, 
who were in rebellion against the stylistic looseness of their fm- 
mediate predecessors in France, released the method which was, 
essentially, the proper method of romantic poetry. They released 
it, that is, within the bounds imposed by more or less traditional 
forms and by their own considerable talents and training: in their 
less fortunate successors we can observe the rapid progression 
toward le surrealisme. Mallarme, like Gray, is a scholarly and 
sophisticated enemy of Reason; the body of his work, like that of 
Gray, is small; and similarly its generative power is very great. 
Mallarme and his coadjutors seem to have played a part in the 
career of the young Stevens similar to that of Gray and Collins 
in the work of the young Bryant. 

Mallarme and Verlaine resemble Gray and Collins in their 
precise artistry and in their sophisticated melancholy, a melan- 
choly which arises in both generations for much the same reasons, 
and which is kept within fairly close stylistic bounds in both pairs 
of poets by comparable sophistication of style. But the Frenchmen 
surpass the two Englishmen of a century earlier in the elusive 
fluctuation of their perception; they have come closer to writing 
not merely about their emotions but with their emotions, and in 
addition to being in certain ways more sensitive, they are harder 
to understand. In fact, they seem to exist very close to that 
precarious boundary beyond which meaning will become so di- 
minished that sensitivity must rapidly diminish with it, since the 
feeling contained in language is indissolubly connected with the 
abstract sense of language and must vanish if that abstract sense 
is wholly destroyed. 

It is in relationship to this resemblance and to this difference 
that it is most interesting to compare Thanatopsis to Sunday 
Morning. Both Stevens and Bryant in these poems were influ- 
enced perceptibly by the preceding decadent masters; both seem 
to have recovered from the influence to such an extent that the 
influence appears as a faint memory, as the supersensitivity of a 
kind of convalescence, in poets who are even more heavily in- 
fluenced by antecedent and stronger tradition. But in Byrant this 
recovery was aided by more than mere literary tradition : he found 


his support in the skeletalized morality and etherealized theology 
of Unitarianism. From these he derived concepts over-simplified 
much as were those of deism, but over-simplified, at least, from 
something that was originally sound. The best of his later poems, 
To a Waterfowl, The Past, The Battlefield, and The Tides, are 
written on themes which are clear and reasonably sound but 
which he was able to apprehend only in terms so general as to 
approach without quite impinging upon vagueness. There is in 
these poems a good deal of the moral conviction that we find in the 
best poets of the English Renaissance, along with a remarkable 
gift for style, but there is very little left of the old moral intelli- 
gence, the diversity, the subtlety, and the precision. Bryant had 
not the intellect requisite to surpass the dominant ideas of his 
generation in New England and recapture anything of the earlier 
intelligence, but the ideas at least supported him, and he had 
enough either of simplicity or of stubbornness not to exchange 
them for anything worse. But Stevens appears to have been sup- 
ported at this point in his career by little except literary tradition; 
like Bryant he accepted one of the current philosophies of his 
time, but one more beguiling and at the same time more danger- 
ous than that of Bryant, and like Bryant he seems to have accepted 
it with no trace of scepticism, and with the result that we have 
seen. His history epitomizes that of four generations of French 

But we have done with the outline of Stevens' general history; 
it is with the moments of dangerous but successful balance in his 
earlier years that we are now concerned. I have spoken of the 
elusive fluctuation of perception in Mallarme and Verlaine, and 
I have referred to the extraordinary subtlety with which Stevens 
perceives the impingement of death, as well as other matters, in 
Sunday Morning; and I have compared this quality in Stevens 
to a similar quality in some of Shakespeare's sonnets. This par- 
ticular kind of sensitivity is fairly common in modern poetry, but 
nowhere at so high a level of excellence, I think, except in Valery, 
certainly nowhere in English: at a lower level, or in another lan- 
guage and rhetorical tradition, it would probably display nothing 
that we should think of as Shakespearean. 


Le Monocle de Mon Oncle, a work produced a few years later 
than Sunday Morning, endeavors to- treat the subject of love in 
hedonistic terms and confesses ironically to encountering more 
than one difficulty. The poem is often obscure, and, perhaps be- 
cause one cannot easily follow it, appears far less a unit than 
Sunday Morning; it contains extraordinary writing, however. 
The second stanza may fairly illustrate what I have said: 

A red bird flies across the golden floor. 

It is a red bird that seeks out his choir 

Among the choirs of wind and wet and wing. 

A torrent will jail from him when he finds. 

Shall 1 uncrumple this much-crumpled thing? 

1 am a man of fortune greeting heirs; 

For it has come that thus I greet the spring. 

These choirs of welcome choir for me farewell. 

No spring can follow past meridian. 

Yet you persist with anecdotal bliss 

To make believe a starry connaissance. 

The first four lines are incomprehensible, except as description, 
and the claim of the fifth line is unjustified; the remainder of the 
stanza, however, displays a combination of bitterness, irony, and 
imperturbable elegance not unworthy of Ben Jonson. 

Of the Manner of Addressing Clouds deals essentially with 
the same subject as the passage in which Crispin contemplates 
the plum, but deals with it in a different mood; that is, the 
poet sees much the same relationship between his art and his 
subject as does Crispin, but since he sees himself alone in the 
"old chaos of the sun," "that drifting waste/' amid the "mute 
bare splendors of the sun and moon/' he is glad to retain his 
art as a mitigation of his solitude: what kind of mitigation he 
does not venture to say, but the mere fact of mitigation suffices 
him. The opening lines of this poem display a faint suggestion 
of Stevens' self-parody in one of its most frequent forms, an 
excess of alliteration which renders the style perversely finical. 
If one will compare these lines to the opening of The Come- 


dian as the Letter C, he may readily see how rapidly the 
method can degenerate into very crude comedy. Of Heaven 
Considered as a Tomb is a vision of death as extinction. These 
two poems deal with the evaluation of the central theme of 
Sunday Morning, with the irremediable tragedy, and they are 
free from all in that poem which invites question as well as 
much that provides richness and variety. The style of both has 
a cold concentration, related to this purity of motive, which 
almost surpasses, for me, the beauty of the longer poem. The 
Snow Man and The Death of the Soldier deal respectively with 
life and with death in a universe which is impersonal and 
devoid of any comfort except that which one may derive from 
the contemplation of the mute bare splendors. They have great 
power, but probably less than the other short poems which I 
have just mentioned, perhaps because of the metrical form. 19 

There appears to be in the best of the early poems, as I have 
said, a traditional seriousness of attitude and a traditional rheto- 
ric cognate with that attitude and precisely expressive of it. 
This traditional element in the early work enables Stevens' 
talent to function at its highest power; but it is not only un- 
justified and unsupported by Stevens' explicit philosophy, it 
is at odds with that philosophy. And the conflict between the 
traditional element and the element encouraged by the phi- 
losophy results little by little in the destruction of the traditional 
element and the degradation of the poet's style. It is extremely 
important that we understand Stevens for more reasons than 
one; he has written great poems, and we should know them and 
know why they are great; and we should know what is bad, and 
why it is bad, so that we may separate the bad from the good 
and the more surely preserve the good. But beyond this, he 
gives us, I believe, the most perfect laboratory of hedonism to 
be found in literature. He is not like those occasional poets of 
the Renaissance who appear in some measure to be influenced 
by a pagan philosophy, but who in reality take it up as a literary 

10 The scansion of free verse and the influence of the meter on the total poetic 
result may be found discussed at great length on pages 103 to 150 of this 
volume. The scansion of The Snow Man is there marked. That of The Death 
of the Soldier is similar in principle, but simpler in form. 

45 8 

diversion at the same time that they are beneath the surface im- 
movably Christian. Stevens is released from all the restraints of 
Christianity, and is encouraged by all the modern orthodoxy of 
Romanticism: his hedonism is so fused with Romanticism as to 
be merely an elegant variation on that somewhat inelegant 
System of Thoughtlessness. His ideas have remained essentially 
unchanged for more than a quarter of a century, and on the 
whole they have been very clearly expressed, so that there is no 
real occasion to be in doubt as to their nature; and he began 
as a great poet, so that when we examine the effect of those 
ideas upon his work, we are examining so